Have you ever heard the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know”? It’s a reality I’ve seen in action many times. I think I know all there is to know about a situation, a project or a subject only to find out that I was wrong and just didn’t realize there was more to know.
Changes in our collective approach to zoning is why we’re starting to see more mixed-use areas where retail, residential, food and office are all found together.
That’s exactly what happens to home buyers when it comes to zoning. Buyers go out looking at homes with the standard criteria in mind. The thought process is simple: “Good price, good neighborhood, great house … let’s do it.” It can be years later before they find the fly-in-the-ointment and, for many a fixer-upper buyer, that fly often takes on the form of a local zoning inspector.
To help you avoid this common pitfall, here are a few zoning considerations for would-be buyers of a fixer-upper.
Zoning is Universal
Unlike homeowners associations, which some neighborhoods have and some don’t, pretty much everyone has zoning laws that apply to their home. Zoning ordinances are usually set by the local municipal government. So don’t ever believe it if someone says, “There’s no zoning to worry about here.”
Zoning Controls Allowed Usage
Zoning is the primary reason most modern cities have distinct commercial areas and residential areas. Changes in our collective approach to zoning is why we’re starting to see more mixed-use areas where retail, residential, food and office are all found together.
It’s usually readily apparent whether you’re in a commercial or residentially zoned area, but not always, so it pays to check.
Using Residential Property for Business Purposes
In many residential areas, the zoning laws prohibit home offices. This is a rule that is frequently broken, but if your business might require a separate entrance or any sort of signage at all, you should check on this. It’s one thing to keep the work you’re doing in a spare bedroom on the DL, and a whole other thing completely to have a sign out front that says “accounting” and a pathway up to your office door.
Renting a Room in a House
A common surprise zoning rule has to do with renting part of your property out. A mother-in-law suite or a garage apartment, for example, often run afoul of zoning regulations because the property is zoned single-family, which means you’re not really allowed to rent out that extra space. Some municipalities crack down on Airbnb-type rentals under these rules too. If you’re counting on that rental income to cover part of the mortgage, this is a very important consideration.
Zoning Dictates Parking Rules in Residential Areas
Another big zoning consideration is parking. Local laws can vary street by street as to what kind of vehicles can be parked outside, and for how long. Whereas HOA restrictions sometimes disallow parking of even unmarked pickup trucks, zoning restrictions usually focus on commercial vehicles (marked work trucks, trucks with racks, large trucks, etc.), recreational vehicles (RVs, travel trailers and boats), and vehicles under repair, such as that hot-rod restoration project you have in mind.
If your plans include parking anything out of the ordinary, you would be well advised to check with the zoning department before making that offer.
Zoning Rules for Buildings
When it comes specifically to fixer-uppers, the whole purchase plan usually involves some level of construction work. Your plan could range anywhere from simple cosmetic work all the way to a major remodel or room additions. If a construction plan is part of your vision, consider these zoning issues.
The most common type of special district is a Historic District. These are usually the most restrictive because they aim to keep things looking pretty much like they always have. Choices such as colors, exterior materials, walkways, fences, etc. are all regulated in Historic Districts. Less restrictive types of districts are Arts Districts and Community Redevelopment Districts. These sometimes loosen restrictions to give areas a more free-spirited artsy feel, or to ignite investment without the burden of restrictions.
It’s not uncommon for neighborhoods to have height restrictions. For existing homes, this would only matter if you want to add a second or third floor addition.
This is a big one. Setbacks are the imaginary lines on the ground that say where you can build. Sometimes you can build right up to the property line, such as in a row house or downtown property, and sometimes you have to stay 100 feet or more from the property line. For most homes, the building setbacks are smaller on the side yards and larger in the front and rear. Corner lots often have larger setbacks on two sides. If you’re thinking about a room addition, it’s very important to know your building setbacks.
On the high side, square footage is usually capped by the available space inside the building setbacks, but it’s not uncommon for zoning laws to include a minimum square footage. If you’re looking to purchase a lot or a tear-down and thinking about building a tiny house, this could come into play.
Often more in the realm of HOA restrictions, some zoning laws also have landscaping requirements. New homes in the Historic District where I live are required, for example, to have two palm trees of a minimum height and other landscape plants to break up the front facade of the house.
How to Check Zoning Laws
If you’re looking to buy home and restrictions like these sound like they could be an issue for you, it’s totally worth it to find out what laws will apply if you become the homeowner.
It’s easy to do. Simply go in person to the municipal zoning office. This is usually connected with the Building Department where permits are obtained. Find a zoning official and give them the address and some details about what you would like to do. If you want to park a motorhome out front and add a new bathroom on the side, tell them so. They work with questions like that every day and will be able to quickly let you know what the rules are for the property in question.
It’s better to know before you buy than to wake up one day and see an inspector out there writing you a big ticket! And believe me, they will.