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Why Is It Important To Know Local Zoning Laws Before You Buy?

By Tabitha Naylor

Zoning laws place restrictions on how a particular piece of property can be used. They are designed to protect people's investments. For example, you buy a house in a nice neighborhood but there are no zoning laws that restrict a factory from building next to your home. It is not a problem for the factory to be built, but it does cause damage to the original home purchasers because the neighborhood is a less desirable place for people to live, sales prices fall, and the homes can become unusable if the sound, smell, or air quality around it suddenly changes.

One of the most overlooked areas of real estate due diligence is local zoning laws and ordinances. Most people understand the importance of doing due diligence-researching the market, getting a n home inspection, comparing lenders etc. but few understand the value of getting an opinion letter from the zoning administrator of the area in which the property is located before they are tied into purchasing the property. An opinion letter from the zoning administrator provides the most reliable confirmation of use. Costs to obtain such a letter are generally inexpensive, and if the letter exposes zoning conditions that prevent or complicate a buyer's plans for the property it is money well spent.

One should not assume that a title search, appraisal report or an on-line check of the tax records is enough to confirm whether or not the property is properly zoned for its intended purpose. Although zoning may be less of a worry for single family home purchases it is very important for commercial and investment property purchases.

It is vital that anyone purchasing property understand and be aware of any zoning law conditions that remain attached to property even after the property is sold until those conditions are modified by the jurisdiction's governing body. Failure to do due diligence around zoning issues can result in the possibility that the building located on the property being purchased is not a "permitted" use under the current zoning law code, but a "non-conforming" use. This distinction becomes very important if the buyer is planning to renovate the building, or if the building requires reconstruction after some type of catastrophic event.

Requesting a zoning verification letter is easy. Contact your local zoning administrator. You can find most zoning offices easily online through town or city websites. Your zoning office will be happy to walk you through the procedure.

Unfortunately, what you do not know about the zoning status of a potential property really can hurt you. If there are limitations on the use of the property it can deprive you, as the owner, from the benefits you expected from the property purchase. If no restrictions exist, you may find you have new, unwelcome guests, such as a factory, that destroy the value of your home and neighborhood. In order to protect your investment and ensure you have full rights to use your property as you expect, you should include zoning contingencies as part of the purchase contract and insist on receiving a zoning verification letter from the zoning administrator before the date you are obliged to close the sale.

You cannot rely, nor should it be the responsibility, on the Board of zoning appeals, planning commissions, supervisors or city councils to protect you against your own lack of due diligence.

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