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2017-11-25 23:13:04
The Devil’s in the Definitions When It Comes To Real Estate Law

The devil’s in the details, or so they say, and when it comes to zoning and land use regulations, the place to watch out for the devil is in the Definitions.

Each town or county sets its own land use definitions, so that’s where you’d go to find out what you’re up against. 

Let’s say, for instance, you want to divide your house up so your mother-in-law can move into her own space. Does that classify as just creating an “in-law apartment”, or are you turning your “single-family house” into a “multi-family dwelling”? 

Or if you want to set up an antique shop in your garage, is that a “retail use” or just a “home occupation” or an “accessory use”? 

Definitions of terms like “residential” and “single-family home” are pretty standard throughout the land, but if you’re thinking of deviating even slightly from a purely single-family residential use, you need to check your local zoning standards before you delve too deeply into the project.

And if you’re in the process of buying a house that you intend to convert to a mixed use, make sure your purchase and sale agreement includes language that gives you time to complete your research. This can be addressed as a contract contingency, in much the same way as a building inspection or water test. 

The starting point for your research is the local zoning ordinance or land use code, paying particular attention to the “Definitions” section. 

And if the definitions are not decisively clear, make an appointment with the local code enforcement officer, whose job it is to resolve ambiguities and issue rulings on grey areas in the definitions. 

How the code enforcement officer categorizes your plans for an antique shop or an in-law apartment could become a total deal-killer in one town, and not be a problem in another. 

If the creation of your mother-in-law’s space is ruled to be a conversion to a multi-family dwelling, for instance, then that could be prohibited altogether in that neighborhood, or it might require special conditions that you don’t have the money or space to provide, like additional parking spaces, a fire escape, or a sprinkler system. 

But if the town allows the apartment as an “in-law apartment”, the conversion might require nothing more than picking up a permit and paying a $50 fee. 

Likewise with the antique shop. One town might classify it as “retail” and require off-street parking and rigorous construction and fire safety standards. While the next town might classify it as a “home occupation”, requiring only minimal red tape.

As with all due diligence, it’s best to get your questions answered before you make the final commitment to buy the place, don’t you think? 

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