Buying & Selling

Everything You Need to Understand About Zoning Before You Buy

Warm weather is here and we have already begun to see the annual influx of “For Sale” signs on homes and undeveloped properties alike.

Are you thinking that 2022 is your year to buy? Well, congratulations! Whether you’re planning on buying land and building your dream home, buying into a brand new housing development or buying established housing, there’s a lot of background work you need to get done.

You probably already know that you need to take a good look at your credit score, research the neighborhoods you’re interested in and get preapproval from your lender. While all of these steps are essential, there’s another one you need to add to the list: Check the zoning before you commit to a purchase.

What’s Zoning, Anyhow?

Zoning refers to the way land is divided up for different purposes, in order for a community to develop cohesively.

Cities, towns and other developmental authorities all have an invested interest in making sure that the land bank they have is used in a way that makes sense for the area’s overall growth and harmony. For example, zoning helps make sure that businesses are grouped closely together, both for maximum efficiency and to help keep traffic out of areas that are designated primarily for residential or agricultural use.

Zoning regulations developed for good reason: A well-defined set of zoning rules can help prevent over-development and the destruction of natural resources. Zoning can also hem in “urban sprawl,” protect and preserve historic sites, encourage businesses to move into an area to increase the area’s job market and protect residential and commercial property values alike – all of which are good things.

However, zoning regulations can also feel a bit intrusive to a lot of property owners. Depending on where you live (or want to live), zoning can dictate a lot – everything from how far back from the road your home has to sit to whether or not you can build certain structures on your back lot. 

What Are Some Common Types of Zoning?

Zoning comes in a lot of flavors, each with its own goals. Some of the most common broad types of zoning include:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Agricultural
  • Recreational
  • Historical

Within each broader zoning category, however, there are often many subtypes. For example, an area that is zoned for residential use may be further zoned for things like:

  • Single-family homes, only
  • Duplexes
  • Apartment complexes
  • Co-operatives
  • Condominiums
  • Trailer parks or mobile homes

There are even areas that are “cross-zoned” for more than one purpose. For example, a historic residential district may also be zoned to allow certain kinds of businesses that thrive in those areas, such as bed and breakfast establishments.

Why Should You Care So Much About Zoning When You Buy?

Essentially, it all comes down to this: Your dream home can turn into a disaster if you buy with certain plans for the future in mind and suddenly run into a “paper wall” of zoning regulations that won’t budge.

While it’s true that zoning rules aren’t set in stone, overcoming a zoning issue can take time, energy and a lot of money, none of which is something you may have to spare when you’re trying to establish yourself in a new residence, work on your career or build a business.

Since only you know your goals for the future, here are some questions to consider as you think about how zoning could affect your ability to enjoy the property you intend to buy:

  1. How restrictive are the zoning regulations where you want to buy? It’s important to remember that zoning issues can crop up on local levels, especially if you buy into a planned development with a homeowners association (HOA). Some areas are more restrictive than others. For example, you may want a six-foot privacy fence around your entire property – but that could be a problem if the local zoning only permits three-foot fences facing the street.
  1. Do you plan to do any additions or major changes to the home? Maybe you want to build a bee preserve in the backyard of your home because you’re trying to do your part for the environment, or maybe you want to turn the basement of your home into an apartment that you can rent for spare cash. Maybe that giant yard looks like the perfect place for a few chickens and an urban garden to you, but zoning may disagree.
  1. Are you planning on starting a home-based business? That old Victorian mansion may have plenty of room for both your private residence and your consulting business, but the zoning may restrict how many feet you can use as a home office and how many parking spots you can have outside for your clients (among other things). Or, it may prohibit home-based businesses of all kinds, if they involve any traffic to-and-from your door. In this situation, a zoning mistake can be an absolute financial disaster.

Before you settle on a piece of property, make sure that the zoning restrictions don’t conflict with your future plans – as far as you can see them. Otherwise, you can end up with a lot of dashed hopes and a major case of “buyer’s regret.”

With all of the things that you have to keep in mind while buying a home or buying property, it’s okay to rely on experienced guidance to help you make sense of zoning. Make sure that you talk over your aspirations with your realtor so that you’re both on the same page while you hunt for a home – and so they can help you avoid any kind of zoning problems.