Building Within The Laws

By Chelle Cordero

April 17, 2013 5 min read

Make sure you know what you are permitted to do before you build or renovate your home. Checking with your local municipality is one of the most important steps you can take before you pick that hammer up. Local laws regulate the use of your property, the size and height of the structure you can build, how close you can build to the edge of your property and even the aesthetic touches you add. There may be restrictions on home-based businesses depending on product, hours and the amount of traffic your business may bring into your neighborhood.

Learn when you need permits to renovate an existing structure, such as a detached garage or the building you live in. Smaller one-story buildings like sheds often do not need building permits, but may need to be placed within certain boundaries on your property. You might be able to rebuild a leaning garage one wall at a time without a permit, but if you knock the entire building down, you'll probably need a permit to rebuild. The same goes for exterior stairs, patios, awnings and other add-ons.

Spending a little bit of time visiting your local zoning department can help guide you before you make expensive mistakes and face fines or mandatory rebuilding. Local ordinances might also exist for shrubs, pool decks, hot tubs, driveways, walkways, entrance stairs and accessible ramps. Neighborhood associations might also have the power to limit the colors you can paint your house, window dressings you can see from the outside, the color of your roof and other ornamental dressings.

Each town has its own rules, which may or may not differ from nearby venues. Generally, the closer you live to developed urban and suburban areas the more rules there are. New York City was the first city to impose zoning regulations, in 1916. Since then, practically every metropolitan area has put ordinances in place. Fines may be imposed on zoning and building offenders.

Government agencies and neighborhood associations develop rules and regulations to limit the use of property to commercial, residential or mixed use. There may be stipulations that mandate one or two family homes, uniform designs of the structures, setback from the street, easements that allow utilities and passage, how many and what kind of vehicles are permitted, and the placement and lumens of outdoor lighting. If you are building or renovating in a historical neighborhood, you might not be able to touch a historic building or change the overall look of the area.

Many communities develop a master plan as a guide to future development and to preserve the quality of an area. Your local government may have separate zoning and planning boards; larger metropolitan areas may have multiple local neighborhood associations. Condominium and co-op developments are often self-governed in addition to local ordinances and laws. While zoning laws affect land use, construction and location, building codes affect safety, egress, fire ratings, etc. Zoning laws are most often formulated by local governments, and building codes are usually adopted from state codes.

Contact your municipal building department, zoning authority and planning board for information. Local contractors might be familiar with local rules, but don't rely on them to get all of the necessary permits before building. As the property owner, you are the one liable for any infractions and may be subject to substantial fines. You may be able to find a list of regulations and the building code online, as well as proper contact names and numbers. Your local planning board can tell you what your property is already zoned for and the various subcategories that may exist. Zoning is public information, and so it is readily available.

If your needs vary from local laws or you want to add a business or such on site, you can request the combined building departments to reclassify the property, but this is not a definite by any means. It might be a good idea to consult a local attorney who is well versed in the local ordinances whenever you request a zoning change or begin a large building project. An attorney can answer questions and make sure you build within the letter of the law.

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