Avoiding Costly Homebuying Mistakes: Zoning Horrors

by Larry Kostaneski, PE

Copyright 1998 Centerline Press

Most people looking for a house to buy are only vaguely aware of zoning regulations. This is not surprising, given the obscure nature of these regulations. But the impact from them can be very real to the unwary house buyer.

Zoning is a concept that recognizes the fact that not all uses of land are compatible with each other. Some human activity is simply not appropriate - or even safe - near other activities. Some obvious examples include allowing a landfill, wastewater treatment plant or oil refinery in the middle of a residential development. While obvious, these examples are not always uppermost in the mind of the home buyer.

It is safe to assume that no one would buy a house that sat next to an oil refinery. But what if the oil refinery owned the land and simply had not expanded their operation to include this vacant portion? It may be perfectly legal for them to use this land, whether houses are in the area or not. You buy the house, paying no attention to the vast tract of vacant land next door, and wake up one morning to discover that the refinery has decided to use their land.

This is not as absurd as it sounds. In fact, similar land use conflicts occur across the country every day. They may not be as dramatic as the above example, but they are still troubling to the homeowner. Uses that commonly conflict with residential areas include bars, restaurants, shopping centers, gas stations, convenience stores or warehouses. Unfortunately, neither the seller of the house nor their real estate agent can always tell you what is planned for a vacant piece of nearby land. I have spoken with hundreds of property owners who were very angry over the fact that an adjacent piece of property was eligible for development as something the homeowners did not think appropriate for the area. Most of the time the vacant land was already zoned for the proposed use; the buyers simply never asked the right person the right question.

An incompatible use is not only annoying, but can adversely affect the value of your home. If you buy a home near a nice meadow, you can bet you'll pay a premium for the privilege. But if a shopping center is planned for that meadow and you don't know about it, the value of your house when you get ready to sell may be far less than you thought. Why? Because the next buyer won't see a meadow, just a sea of asphalt, bright lights at night and lots of traffic. Their view will be quite different than yours was.

It is extremely important to know what is planned for vacant land near any house you are considering buying. The seller is not always the best source for this information. Local government agencies that control zoning are the best source.

Next Time: Environmental Concerns.

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Mr. Kostaneski is a registered professional engineer, former government regulatory official, owner of an engineering consulting firm and author of "A Home Buyer's Guide To Reality". He regularly contributes articles to The Dollar Stretcher.

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