The idea of zoning is simple. It governs what buildings can be built where. Most zoning is one of three kinds: residential, commercial, or industrial.

Even if your construction idea is simple, zoning rules are not. And these rules don't matter to most people – until suddenly, they do.

That’s why we wanted to give you a quick guide to zoning, whether you’re a homebuyer or homeowner.

Our goal is to make it headache-free.

1. Know the rules before you build or buy

Zoning rules often limit what you can do in your home. For example, many communities don’t allow you to operate a business from your house. You could end up paying to create office space you can’t use. Local codes can also stop you from converting part of your home into an apartment.

Zoning codes frequently define “setbacks” -- the minimum distance your house has to be from a property line. If you build a new addition that crosses a setback line, you could be forced to rebuild the addition so it complies with the code. The word “rebuild” sounds like an expensive nightmare to us and we bet it sounds like one to you, too.

If you buy a house which violates a rule, you are in the same boat, even if the previous owner caused the issues.

Zoning laws can change a lot from one community to the next, so make sure you know the ones that apply to your home – especially if your home is part of a homeowners association (HOA).

2. Sometimes you can get a rule changed

You can get approval to not follow a zoning regulation. (This is called a “variance.”) But these are not easy to get and they have their limits.

For a variance, you have to file an application and have a hearing. Most communities or townships require you to pay a fee to submit a variance application. Your neighbors can show up at the hearing and talk about whether you should get your request approved. So play nice. And even for small changes, you’ll have to prove you need it to avoid a large expense or personal hardship.

3. Historic and aesthetic zoning are things, too

Sometimes that beautiful older home you love is part of a historic zone, and rules limit how much you can change the house from its original look and what improvements and repairs you are allowed to make. Houses don’t need to be that old to be considered historic, either. In some cases, fifty years can be enough.

Then there is aesthetic zoning – which you might want to call “busy body” rules, but are rules just the same. These can cover things like what color you are allowed to paint your house, whether you can build a deck, where you are allowed to put a satellite dish, and so on.

4. Know about local commercial and industrial zoning

If your home is surrounded by other family homes, chances are pretty good your neighborhood is just zoned for residential.

But, maybe not.

When communities hope to attract businesses, properties that look residential may be zoned for commercial use. This is often true in town centers or cities where homes and businesses can be right down the street from each other.

Then there is industrial zoning. Those beautiful fields behind your brand-new house? Someone might decide to build a warehouse on them and they can do it if the rules say they can.

Before you buy a house, it’s a pretty good idea to take a peek at the zoning around it. So as you start major home renovations or construction, definitely check if local residential zoning codes apply to the work. And figure out if you need permits, too!

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