Home Remodeling Basics and Everything You Need to Know About Zoning Ordinances

Before you begin any home remodeling you have planned, it’s wise to investigate several limitations that may have an impact on your plans, starting with zoning.

To learn about the legal restrictions enforced in your area, call or visit your local building department. The purpose of your visit is fact finding. You want to learn all you can about how zoning regulations and building codes will affect your plans. These laws can vary from county to county. Don’t assume anything until you’ve checked it out.

Zoning regulations usually affect exterior construction only, not interior remodeling of existing living space. Zoning protects the quality of a neighborhood. In some areas only certain architectural styles are allowed. Ordinances can also prevent the unsuitable use of property within a specific zone. If your neighborhood is zoned for single-family houses, for example, you’re protected from any business that wants to build a factory or a fast-food restaurant right next door to you.

Zoning regulations also define the required setbacks for buildings. (A setback is the specified distance a building must be from a property line.) These distances can vary from front to back and side to side. For example, the setback from the street property line may be 25 to 30 feet; on the side or adjoining property line the setback may be only 5 to 10 feet. You should know your property lines exactly. A fence or other such boundary is not an assurance of the legal property line.

There may be other special zoning requirements in your area. You’ll want to find out what these are before you begin to plain in detail. For example, your zone may have a limitation that restricts how high your building can be. This is especially important on a sloping city site.

Zoning regulations can block your plans in a number of ways. For example, if you plan a second-story addition, the restrictions may require the addition to be set back farther from the street than the first floor is. Depending on the size of your lot, this may mean that the only place you are allowed to add on is to the rear of the house. The zoning may require off-street enclosed parking for your car. If so, that affects any plans to convert your garage to living space. If you plan an addition that provides living space for your parents, the building department may interpret this as a two-family dwelling (yours and your parents’). Under existing zoning ordinances, your plans may be disallowed.

If you find that your plans conflict with the zoning regulations, you can apply for a variance, or exception to the law. The permit appeals department can tell you how to apply for a variance hearing if it’s necessary. Once you present your case, the decision is up to the local planning board.

In addition to zoning regulations, your property may have other restrictions you should know about. For example, an easement gives someone else, such as the utility company or local municipality, the legal right to cross your property. A deed restriction may be written into your deed and limit the use of your property in some way. If you own a condominium or belong to a homeowners’ association, a set of conditions, covenants, and restrictions may determine what you can do to your property. Be sure to anticipate any of these potential problems by examining your deed and checking with the building department.

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