Remodeling Within the Law

Before you start remodeling, check out local building codes and ordinances that determine where and what you can build, add, or change.


+ enlarge image Converting your attic into a bedroom suite could violate zoning laws if you raise the height of the roof.

Zoning regulations cover four basic building issues: height, use, bulk, and density. These rules specify the maximum height of a building; its allowable uses, which include residential, commercial, industrial, and home-office considerations; the width and depth of the building; and the number of units allowed per acre.

Zoning regulations were not in use until the early to mid-1900s. In addition, regulations are modified on a regular basis to address changes in the community. Therefore, if you're in an older neighborhood, your type of house may not be consistent with the zone where you live. For example, you may have a single-family home in a commercial or multifamily zone. This is known as a preexisting, nonconforming use. (Although this sounds like a bad thing, it simply means that your use is "grandfathered," or permitted to continue, as long as you don't make any significant changes in any of the four basics covered by zoning regulations.)

Generally speaking, only use, height, and bulk restrictions affect residential building additions. If you want to add a bedroom, greenhouse, kitchen, family room, or other space that is consistent with a residence, you usually can relax any worry about use considerations. However, there is one significant caveat: If your house falls into the preexisting, nonconforming use category, you will need an approval called a variance from the municipality to build an addition.

A variance permits an exception to the rule for your specific situation. Without the variance, you cannot add the addition. Even if your house is in conformance with current zoning rules, you will need a variance if you propose an addition that is taller than the maximum height for the zone or wider than the maximum width. In addition, a variance is required if you change the use of a building such as converting your garage to a florist's shop.

Obtaining a variance not only costs money, but it also can involve significant time and effort. You may need to hire a lawyer or other professionals (planner, engineer, or architect) to help you prove that the variance is necessary.

Variances are granted based upon special considerations such as promoting public health, safety, morals, and general welfare; securing safety from fire, flood, panic, and other disasters; providing adequate light, air, and open space; or exceptional and undue hardship relating to the specific site. You also have to show that there will be no negative impact upon the community or your neighbors. Variances are usually decided by a zoning board of local citizens chosen by the governing body of the municipality.

+ enlarge image You could run into setback issues if your planned deck approaches your property line.

Setback requirements mandate the number of feet between the building area and the property line. Setbacks are designed to provide adequate space between buildings for light, ventilation, access, and privacy. For example, a house usually needs to be 10 to 15 feet from the side property boundary. Setbacks for the front and rear generally are much greater and depend on the size of the lot.

The best way to determine the existing relationship of your house to the property boundaries is to check your home's survey plat. You should have received a copy of this document when you bought your house. If not, you can get a copy from your municipality. Then, check with zoning or building officials for the appropriate setback distances. You cannot build an addition -- or even a shed -- beyond the setback area unless you get a variance. Even worse, if you do build without a variance, you may be forced to remove the addition.

If you live in an area that is relatively dense, it will probably be more difficult to obtain a building permit for an addition because there is less room for building without encroaching on setbacks. In many older areas, houses are already built to the setback lines. In less-dense suburban areas, there may be more opportunity, particularly if your house is on a large lot. In most cases, adding to the rear of the house is the best option because this is likely to have the deepest setback and the least encroachment on your neighbors.

The presence of an easement or deed restriction may prevent the construction of an addition.

+ enlarge image Your town may own part of your front yard, where the sidewalk is.

An easement is a legal interest in a parcel of land, owned by someone other than the landowner. An easement entitles the holder to a specific limited use.

Most easements are designed to provide access to services and utilities. For instance, a municipality may own a sewer easement on a portion of property for a storm or wastewater sewer. The presence of this type of easement means either that a sewer pipe is underground or that the town has the right to place a sewer there.

For the most part, easements are purchased or placed on a property and remain with the property until legally changed. These should show up on your survey plat or on your deed or tax map. It is highly unlikely that an easement can be changed to accommodate an addition, particularly if a pipe or electric lines are located underground. The homeowner does not own the rights to the land on an easement even though it is on his or her property.

Deed restrictions are conditions placed on the property by former owners that may protect specific areas of the property or may place conditions on building. Deed restrictions may be present to protect wetlands or other natural resources, or may limit the type of development or changes that can be made to a property. For example, many municipalities will place deed restrictions on houses when they are first built to protect open space from future development.

+ enlarge image If this is an original Victorian home, the owners may be limited in terms of the changes they can make.

Federal, state, or local regulations now protect many homes or neighborhoods that have historical, cultural, or ethnic significance. For the most part, these rules are effective and have helped to preserve the character of many older urban and rural environments.

Owning a historic property can present special challenges, however. Your renovation may cost more, and the special approvals may require more patience. You will probably have to comply with ordinances that require specific materials and approval of your plans by either the municipality or a local historical commission. Fortunately, the results are often worth the added time and expense.

If your house is a historic building or is located in a historic district, talk with the appropriate local, state, or federal officials and get approval before making any exterior changes to your home. (Sometimes interior changes, such as moving walls or adding additional capacity to utilities, are regulated also; ask ahead of time just to be sure.)

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