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Your guide to variance in real estate

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    One of the beauties of homeownership is getting to make new and exciting changes to your property so it ultimately becomes your dream home. However, there may be some limitations to what changes you make, depending on the zoning laws that may be in place in your area. Zoning laws prohibit certain uses of land to keep communities in a certain order. But there are some cases where your desire or need to adjust your property may outweigh the reason for a zoning law. This exception to the rule is known as a variance in real estate. Let’s take a closer look at zoning laws, how a variance comes into play and how it works.

    What are zoning laws?

    Before diving into what a zoning variance is, it’s helpful to know what “zoning” is in the first place. Zoning is essentially a way of organizing land and designating how it can be used. Each community has zoning laws that dictate what can and can’t be done with the property to help create the right environment for businesses versus residential communities.

    For example, there are zoning ordinances that dictate whether land is meant for a home, a factory or a storefront. This helps keep things convenient, especially if you live in a suburb, where stores are typically located in specific areas so shopping and other errands can be done at once. It also helps regulate home values. Zoning laws help prevent structures being built next to homes that would take away from their desirability and eventual resale value.

    What is a zoning variance?

    If you want to go against zoning laws, you’ll need a zoning variance, which is essentially a hall pass to use or build on a piece of land in a way that’s outside of the zoning law. Zoning variances are helpful for homeowners who may want to do something unique with their property. For example, a zoning law in your community may prevent fences higher than 10 feet. But perhaps you want to build a 20-foot-tall fence. If you were to apply for a zoning variance and it was granted, you would be allowed to bypass the law and build the fence. If you did not acquire the zoning variance before making the change to your property, you could potentially face a fine or be made to remove the project.

    How do you get a variance for real estate?

    If you’re a homeowner looking for a zoning variance, contact your local zoning office and find out how to request one — each municipality may vary. You may be asked to submit a letter that states what you want to do with your property, what law is preventing you from doing it and your justification for why you should receive an exception to the rule. Some homeowners may lean on a real estate attorney for assistance crafting the letter. Note that the way to secure a zoning variance may vary depending on your local municipality and that there are typically fees associated with this request.

    Upon receipt of the zoning variance request, the local zoning authority will typically notify the parties (whether that’s another business, neighbor or landowner) affected by the zoning laws in question and schedule a hearing where the request is officially presented, and all parties weigh in on the matter. At the end of the hearing, your request will either be granted or denied. If the request is denied and you’re still passionate about moving forward, then you can request to appeal the decision. Referencing your local appeals processes would be the next step. If your request is granted, then you can move forward with your project.

    What are the different types of variances in real estate?

    There are two main types of variances: area and use.

    • Area variance: For real estate purposes, an area variance typically allows homeowners to go against particular physical and dimensional restrictions stated in their local zoning. For example, building an extension on a home or a fence with illegal dimensions would fall under this variance.
    • Use variance: A use variance is a variance on how you’re actively using a property. Some examples include opening a business in a designated residential neighborhood or building a multi-family home.

    Can a zoning variance expire?

    Yes. If your request is approved, you may be given a specific time window to move forward with your project and complete the work in question. The expiration date, or lack thereof, varies on a case-by-case basis. Note that you’re entitled to change your mind about the variance, even after it’s granted, and decide not to make the changes.

    In summary

    When it comes to variances in real estate, they help people use or build on property in a way that may fall outside local rules. Although zoning laws are typically beneficial to our communities, there are some cases where exceptions are desired. If you’re a homeowner looking to make changes to your property and zoning laws prohibit these changes, contact your local zoning board before moving forward. A variance request may help you move forward with your project.

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