1. Archive

Check zoning laws for limits on teardowns

(ran HS edition)

When a teardown involves replacing a modest house with a larger one, home owners should look closely at zoning laws. The new plans could run afoul of ordinances governing a house's maximum height, its distance from property lines and its overall size, not to mention even pickier rules about architectural features such as windows and porches.

"A lot of areas now have laws that limit what can be built on top of a teardown," says Christopher Senior, staff counsel for the National Association of Homebuilders.

Having a permit application rejected, however, doesn't necessarily end the dream of a new house. The next step is to apply for a variance, which allows exceptions to some laws, although neighbors must agree with any rule-bending. The city zoning board typically notifies nearby residents of the variance request and asks for their opinions at a public hearing or in writing, so it's wise to explain the plan in advance and get them on your side.

The process typically requires a real estate attorney, whose bill could come to $1,000 if the application is unopposed and as much as $10,000 or more if it meets with resistance that leads to litigation.

Winning the variance might require compromise, such as the loss of a couple of hundred square feet, but that might not be much to relinquish when the whole house is at stake.