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How to Navigate Residential Zoning Laws

— December 13, 2023

Make sure you’re up-to-date on the particulars of your residential property’s zoning laws before you make any significant changes.

Buying a new plot of land or transforming an existing property is exciting. Whether you plan to add a granny suite, convert a commercial area into a residential space, or vice versa, you’ll likely cross paths with state-level residential zoning laws. 

It’s important to note that zoning regulations are not federally regulated, so their impact on your property will largely depend on your location. The process of ‘re-zoning’ a parcel of land for residential use often significantly increases its value. These residential zoning laws are crucial in dictating permissible and prohibited activities on a piece of land and any potential alterations. 

While it might appear simple, zoning laws can be complex and challenging to understand. We’ve created this comprehensive guide to help you understand zoning laws, how they could apply to your home build, and how to navigate the various authorities you’ll need to deal with. Let’s start with the basics.

What are zoning laws? 

Zoning laws govern how property can and cannot be used. Zoning laws help localities manage the land within their region and ensure that the natural environment is adequately protected while allowing businesses and homeowners to create their dream property or business.

How zoning laws impact homeowners 

For homeowners, old and new zoning laws can be favorable for your property or a huge pain to navigate if you want to build anything onto your existing property structure or buy new land to build a second, smaller rental dwelling. Depending on which type of residential zoning your existing property falls under, you may be unable to build a second structure.

When buying a new home, it’s worth checking what the existing property is currently zoned for. You might find fantastic value in a small one-bedroom home that would make a great place for your art studio/gallery. However, that property will need to be re-zoned for commercial use and adhere to all the regulations of a commercial-use property. 

This new zoning classification could greatly increase or decrease the property’s value. Before you leap into buying a reasonably priced property, be sure to check that any changes you want won’t affect the property’s potential resale value in the future. 

Many different types of changes that you could make to an existing property space will require assessments by the town’s planners and for you to receive planning permission. For example, if you want to build a backyard shed, you’ll want to check whether your shed build requires a building permit from the local council. Regulations for even something as simple as a shed can vary by state and locality, so it’s worth checking before starting any building.

Understanding zoning codes

Zoning laws are typically broken down into six common categories: Agricultural zoning, residential zoning, industrial zoning, commercial zoning, and historic zoning. 

Each indicates how the property can be used, and each has its own set of specific restrictions. These zoning can also be broken down into sub-categories.

In the United States, for example, residential zoning legislation can allow several residential properties to be built on a lot that is zoned for residential purposes. These properties can include: 

  • Single-family residences (whether single or multi-story).
  • Suburban homesteads.
  • Apartments.
  • Trailer parks.
  • Condos.
  • Home-based business (an exception can be made within a single-family residence to allow for a home-based business without requiring re-zoning to a mixed-use or commercial classification). 

In addition, mixed-use zoning is often found outside of central business districts of cities. It provides a place for buildings and properties that can have apartments in them and businesses.

Zoning regulations can vary significantly by municipality, so be sure to check your local zoning legislation before you buy a property and make any changes to an existing property you own. Even something as simple as tree trimming or putting in a garage or garden shed could violate municipal zoning laws.

The zoning approval process 

When acquiring planning permission for your new house build or other property plans, you’ll need to go through a zoning approval process to either re-zone your home for a different purpose or re-zone an empty lot that was previously considered an industrial or agricultural zone to a residential zone. 

Typically, the zoning approval process consists of the following steps for residential use but may differ depending on the re-zoning purpose. 

  • Decide what you want to do to your existing property. Come up with a written plan.
  • Consult with your local council or planning department to see if your plans are possible within the current zoning slot of your property. For example, certain house additions don’t require planning permission to be obtained.
  • If you require planning permission, determine which documents you’ll need to support your re-zoning application — for example, building plans and architectural drawings, engineering assessments, environmental impact assessments, etc.
  • Make appointments for these necessary assessments and obtain properly certified documents signing off on your development proposal from engineers, architects, assessors, etc.
  • Submit your proposal to the council and pay all allocated fees. Next, you’ll need to wait (sometimes months) for the zoning application to be approved before the building can begin. 

It is worth checking whether your property has a heritage designation from your local council. If so, you may (and likely will) need to meet extra requirements before modifying its structure in even the most straightforward ways.

Zoning compliance for homeowners

Before you buy any property with a vision to tear it down and build new with all the bells and whistles, check that the existing building isn’t a heritage property. Or, suppose you plan to build your new home-based business inside your existing house. You need to check if the zoning laws allow for what could be considered mixed-use residential property. 

Keep up-to-date on how zoning laws are changing within your locality. If your local council has an email newsletter about their zoning legislation, sign up for it to keep up-to-date and always check your zoning regulations before doing anything other than minor cosmetics to your property. 

Never skimp on an assessment during a planning permission process. While it may seem unnecessary for your purposes, not getting the assessment performed because the renovation doesn’t seem like such a big deal could result in severe fines and your application being rejected. If zoning laws require the assessment, it’s always best to find the best accredited assessor locally and pay the piper so your project can proceed unhindered.

Common zoning violations 

There are a few common zoning violations to consider while designing or building your new home:

1. Building a granny suite without easy access

While putting a second-level bedroom in the attic for your friend who’s fallen on hard times or a family member who needs a place to crash for a while may not seem like a big deal, it must be done with planning permission. All “bedrooms” within a dwelling must have a point of egress through a window to the outside to allow for escape in the event of a fire.

If not, you could incur a huge fine. In some states, these fines can reach $120,000, and a stop-work order can be imposed on your construction company.

2. Cutting down a tree without permission

Tree stump; image by Edward Howell, via
Tree stump; image by Edward Howell, via

While it may seem basic, you’re not necessarily allowed to cut down any tree in your way while putting in a new back garden shed, pool, or other structure. Sometimes, the tree may be a particularly old tree or a rare type of tree for the area and is protected from destruction. 

Get permission first from your local council, and they will likely appoint a qualified arborist to make the necessary changes if they approve of your plan. Cutting down a tree without permission could result in civil penalties being levied against you by your local council.

3. Opening a business in your home

Suppose you have a small business and want to operate it from home. In that case, that may be okay up to a certain point, but if you want to open up your business to the public – say, opening an art studio — then you may need to have planning permission to do so, ensuring that you have things like an accessible bathroom, or a wheelchair-accessible entryway and a safe, navigable environment for your customers.

Failure to obtain planning permission for this could mean that the municipal government will shut your business down or could result in large civil penalties, depending on the nature of the infraction.

Residential zoning legislation can be complicated to understand and interpret. Make sure you’re up-to-date on the particulars of your residential property’s zoning laws before you make any significant changes.

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