When Buying a Home, Consider Zoning Rules

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Homebuyers typically consider factors like school quality, easy access to a place of work and, of course, price and curb appeal. But in today’s market, the forward-thinking buyer might be wise to look at zoning regulations, too.

Zoning regulations? Really?

Many buyers, especially first-time buyers, are only vaguely aware of zoning, the set of local laws that determines what can be done with a piece of land. You can’t, for example, put a gas station on a site zoned for residential use, and most suburban communities prohibit raising farm animals like pigs and cattle.

Generally, it’s safe to assume that if you’re buying a single-family home in a residential neighborhood the property is zoned for single-family homes and you’ll have no problem. It would be nice to know, though, if the vacant land across the street is zoned the same way, or could someday have a shopping strip, office building or industrial park. Different uses of land near your home will affect your property’s value in different ways.

It’s also important to weigh a subtler issue: what changes will you be allowed to make to your new property? Zoning boards spend lots of time dealing with homeowners who have violated rules on fences, pools and additions.

Given today’s slow housing market, it can be risky to buy a home unless you plan to stay there for a number of years. It can take an 8% or 10% appreciation in the property’s value to offset the many fees involved in buying and selling a home, such as title insurance, loan application fees, appraisal and realtor’s commission. With homes appreciating very slowly, breaking even could take a good deal longer than the four or five years traditionally assumed.

If you have to stay in your house as your family grows rather than trade up to a bigger one, you might need to expand or modify the property to suit your changing needs.

A variety of zoning rules can interfere with these plans, though. Many towns, for example, place height restrictions on single-family homes, making it impossible to raise the roof to add another bedroom.

There are also setback rules that require a minimum distance between outside walls and the property line. These can be complicated, sometimes involving a combined figure for the two sides, for instance. Generally, the front of the home has to be some minimum distance back from the street.

Other rules regulate things like fencing, sometimes permitting only certain types of fence – split rail is fine, chain link is not. In some communities fences must be constructed with the good-looking side facing out.

Often, there are rules on “impervious surface,” which is a percentage of the site that can be covered by materials that don’t soak up rainwater, such as the house and driveway. A brick or concrete patio might count as impervious surface, while a wooden deck might not. This rule can prevent the homeowner from putting on an addition, a real problem when you need another bedroom.

Many older homes were built under looser rules and are covered by grandfather clauses, in some cases allowing the homeowner to continue the violation as long as he or she doesn’t make it worse. If you had too much impervious surface, for example, you could replace the driveway but not enlarge it. In other towns, changes must bring every element of the property into compliance.

Local governments have procedures for requesting zoning variances, which allow the owner to break the rules, but these are never guaranteed. Since a variance is permanent, the zoning board considers its effect on neighbors and future owners. In fact, your neighbors will get a chance to comment on any proposed variances at a public hearing.

So when shopping for a home these days, it pays to think about how you might want to change the property even before you buy, and to check with local zoning officials to know whether your modifications would be allowed or not. You may buy a home only to end up living in a prison of zoning regulations.

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