Check Out Zoning Rules Before You Buy a House

Plan to run a home business or remodel a house? Check out local zoning rules before you buy.

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Before you get too serious about a particular house or neighborhood, be sure to check out local zoning rules and regulations. You might be disappointed to discover that the home business you’d always dreamed of starting is prohibited, or that you can’t turn the garage into an in-law cottage.

Neighborhood Zoning Categories

Find out from the municipal planning and building department what zoning category the neighborhood you’re interested in falls into. A classification called single-family residential is typical. But some neighborhoods with ordinary houses might actually be zoned for multifamily residential, transitional, or a mixed use such as residential plus commercial. One of these other classifications might be good for you. For example, if a home business is in your plans, mixed commercial and residential might be perfect. But classification other than single-family residence might be a problem for you, particularly when it comes to your neighbors’ future plans. Multifamily zoning, for example, might mean the house next door could be replaced with an apartment building.

Zoning and Local Rules That Might Affect Your Use of the Property

It’s a good idea to research zoning and other municipal rules—ideally with the help of your real estate agent or attorney—if any of the following are true:

You Intend to Operate a Home Business

 In an area zoned residential, take a careful look at the local rules—they don’t always give a clear thumbs up or down for home businesses. Some rules, for example, prohibit home businesses in general but allow exceptions, such as for in-home child care or a photography studio. See the Nolo article Home Businesses and Zoning for more on the subject.

You Plan to Remodel

 If you plan to remodel the house or garage or add other structures (even a fence, pool, or child’s tree house), check zoning rules.  These may be quite restrictive and often require permits and a bunch of red tape. Local view ordinances, for example, may limit your ability to add a second story to your house or tear down your garage. You might consult a local architect in advance for advice on dealing with, or getting around, the rules.  And if the house has been designated a historic landmark, any remodeling—even basic things like a new paint job—may be subject to local rules on style and color.

You Have a Boat or RV

If you plan to park a boat, RV, or large vehicle in your driveway, make sure you’re allowed to do. Some local rules restrict parking of oversize vehicles in residential areas.

You Plan to Cut Down a Large Tree or Keep Farm Animals

Landscaping, excluding shrubs and flowers, may be a topic of separate regulation. Farm animals such as roosters or goats may be prohibited. If in doubt, check local rules.

You’re Worried About Neighbors

If you’re worried that homeowners next door or behind your house may add a second story, run a disruptive home business, or otherwise cause problems, follow the advice above, and check out local rules. Your city’s view ordinances and other zoning rules, for example, may allow your neighbors to obstruct your view or restrict sunlight on your property with a second story addition. If vacant lots are widespread in the neighborhood, or you see a lot of new construction, you’ll want to know what might legally be built there.

Your New Home Is Covered by CC&Rs

If you’re moving into a subdivision, condo, or planned unit development (PUD), be sure to check out regulations called Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs). These typically cover how individual homeowners are expected to treat and use their property (such as fence style in a detached house or curtain color in a condo). See the Nolo article Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) and CC&Rs for more on the subject.

How to Find Local Zoning Rules and Ordinances

Check your local planning department on your city’s or county website; many will post information on zoning rules and ordinances.  If your city’s website does not include the text of local ordinances, check out local laws on websites such as State and Local Government on the Net and the Municipal Code Corporation (Municode).

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