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Zoning Laws and Other Construction Regulations

In spite of the fact that the United States has very strong laws that protect private property ownership rights, in virtually every part of the country there are laws limiting what can be built on that same private property.

Of all the government regulations that affect what you can build, zoning is probably the most common. The zoning ordinance tells you what you can build (and can’t) and where you can build it by dividing the community into zoning districts. You can check the zoning map on file at city or town hall to find out what zoning classification you’re in. You can then take a look at the regulations for that zoning classification.

After you determine what you can build — for example a single-family, detached house — the zoning ordinance will have a list of physical requirements. Typically the ordinance tells you the minimum size of the lot you have to have and provide certain minimum dimensions such as width, depth, and frontage on a street. You have to comply with each of these regulations in order to be allowed to build your house. After you determine that the lot is adequate, you have to see where the ordinance tells you the house must go — because your neighbors don’t want you too close to them and vice versa. The ordinance has a set of setbacks, sometimes called yards, as in front yard setback or side yard setback. These are minimum distances form the edges of the property line that you must maintain without construction. You can usually put in driveways and paths in your setbacks, but no buildings.

One of the more challenging things you may have to deal with in this era of ever larger homes is coverage and floor area ratio (FAR). Coverage is the percentage of the lot that you may cover with a building and other surfaces through which rainwater can’t pass like driveways and patios. So if you have a 40 percent coverage rule to follow and you own a 10,000 square foot lot you can cover a maximum of 4,000 square feet with building and other impervious surfaces. The FAR may be more challenging because it limits the total square footage that can be built as a of the lot size. So with the same 10,000 square foot lot if you have a FAR of 1 you could build a total of 10,000 square feet of building, which usually includes garages, basements, and attics. If you had a FAR of .5 you’d only be able to build a total of 5,000 square feet.

Zoning ordinances may also regulate things like outbuilding, fences, and decks. Whatever the case, before you buy land and build on it, find out what the zoning ordinance and other local regulations allow you to do with your property — or more importantly, what you can't do with it. That ten-car garage for your fancy car collection may just not be on the agenda.

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