Homebuyer beware: Zoning Analysis before Closing
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
One step in the home sales process that is often overlooked is a zoning analysis. Having a zoning analysis completed prior to closing is critically important if any future enhancements are planned. Oftentimes, anticipated changes and ideas are not scheduled until after the homeowner has been in their home for years. These changes can include:
- Expansion of the home's footprint including decks or patios
- Accessory structures, garages, pools, or even fences.
- Expansion upwards including building above an existing space, adding a higher roof, or dormers.
- Changing the intended use of a property (changing from single family to double family or creating a professional office or business).
Bottom line: Always have a Zoning Analysis done prior to closing.
Here are some situatings our clients have experienced with home purchases made without having had zoning analyses prior to closing and the consequences that followed:
Case #1 : South Orange, NJ. A single family home was purchased in a residential zone that did not allow for single family homes (yes...this does happen!) as it was in South Orange's RC Zoning district. (RC Zones allows for Multi-Family or Businesses, not Single Family). Any work that was done to this home - even including adding a fence - was considered "an alteration to a non-conforming property" and required the homeowner to seek a zoning variance, costing several thousand dollars and several months, for any alternations to the home.
Case #2: South Orange, NJ. A new homeowner purchased a property with a garage with the intention of adding living quarters above the garage. This was not allowed in South Orange's zoning ordinance, and the homeowner was unable to meet the housing needs of her family.
Case #3: Maplewood, NJ. A new homeowner purchased a 2-story home with an unfurnished attic, intending to finish the attic for additional living space. Despite there being multiple examples of finished attics as well as full 3-Story homes in Maplewood, the zoning ordinance did not allow for a home with more than 2 stories without a variance. As a result the homeowner had to seek a zoning variance and had to delay the construction of other renovation projects while the variance process occurred.
Fortunately, we have had clients that do zoning analyses prior to closing:
Case #4: Summit, NJ. A client engaged us to review a property in which she wanted to create a 2-family townhouse/home from an existing single-family home. A quick review of Summit's Use Groups indicated that only detached single-family properties were permitted in this residential zone; she then moved on to another home to purchase which did allow for multi-family homes.
Case #5: West Orange, NJ. A client was looking to purchase a tract of land to build a new home. A review of the property's set-backs and slopes indicated that the resulting build-able area was not large enough to create the home that he wanted; he is now searching for another property. West Orange (and most other NJ municipalities) has limits on the land development on steep slopes, effectively reducing the build-able area of a particular property.
Case #6: Livingston, NJ. A client was looking to purchase a home to do a house flip. They conducted a zoning analysis prior to closing, but understood based on the analysis that they would have to get a zoning variance to do the second story addition that they had planned. We started working with the client after the purchase and developed a variance-free 2nd story design (the 2nd story was set-back from the 1st story). The construction happened within 6 months and the client had a successful resale/flip.
Homeowners should be very careful when anyone - realtors, contractors, family & friends - advises them that improvements or additions can be made to a home without understanding the zoning ordinance. Zoning variances can be long, expensive and are never guaranteed. Architects, land use attorneys and planners can assist in preparing zoning analyses and, if needed, zoning variance applications.