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Make sure to get zoning advice before you buy

I get a lot of calls from people who have found great lots in great locations with not-so-great homes on them. They ask me if I can do anything to help. More often than not, the answer is yes. But many times, asking a few questions of others beforehand would have solved the problem before they had to ask me.

Real estate agents are very good at selling houses. They’re not always very good at gathering information about zoning.

Every town has zoning by-laws. They’re an imperfect set of rules and regulations that govern what you can and can’t do to your house and property.

If you’re planning a renovation or addition, knowing what the zoning is on the property you’re considering is crucial. When I visit someone’s house, the first thing I ask for is a copy of the zoning regulations and a survey. If you don’t have a survey, consider getting one, particularly if your property is in a densely populated or older neighborhood. You will be amazed at what you can learn about your property from the map. Most towns have their zoning by-laws online. If not, you will have to take a trip down to the local building inspector’s office.

Here’s a list of questions that will make you sound like a genius when you get there:

“Is this house as-of-right?”

Here, you are asking if everything on the property conforms to the current zoning by-laws. If not, then what is not as-of-right? Was the nonconformity permitted? Was a special permit or variance granted? If so, you want to see the decision in its entirety. (Note: It’s filed at the town clerk’s office and at the registry of deeds. Look them up online.) Almost all decisions by a zoning board of appeals or a planning board come with conditions, so what looks like a no-brainer to you can be a big brainer for the boards. You will never know unless you do your homework.

“What is the zoning in the area?”

This is where you find out what the town will allow under certain conditions. For the single-family homeowner, you are interested mostly in what the front, side, and rear yard setbacks are and

how high you can make the building. If you are planning an addition that’s going to be over the rear yard setback, your dream design is at risk. So you also need to ask…Â

“What are the chances of getting zoning relief?”

What you want to know here is, if it looks as if the only way to get the space you want is to design an addition that encroaches on a setback, what is the likelihood of getting the permits you need? The quick answer is nobody really knows. However, with a few well-placed phone calls and some research on what has been allowed in the past, you’ll get a sense of what the attitude is in your community.

“How do I find out what I need to know to make an informed decision?”

Real estate agents usually don’t provide you with this information. Good agents can provide you with a copy of the setback tables, but they often hesitate to do more out of concern about professional liability. Experienced, well-trained architects, however, can provide you with all this information. For us, it is not a liability risk;  it is our job.

If you are planning on tearing down a house, making drastic changes, or adding on to a house, you really should consider using an architect anyway. Be sure to find one with a skill set that includes pulling special permits and helping you with all of the above issues because, in most towns, that’s what you will need before construction begins. I always recommend using a local architect if at all possible; someone who knows whom to contact for what and exactly what needs to be done in regard to permits. Having spent over nine years on my town’s planning board, I get a kick out of watching big time city-slicker architects fumble through the permit process.

So be smart, ask the right questions, and gather as much information as you can before making that purchase or that change. If you are working with a savvy real estate agent and he or she suggests bringing out a local architect to look over the property with you, do it. Most architects do not charge for this visit, but even if they do, it is worth a couple of bucks to get information that might prevent your dream house from turning into the nightmare on Elm Street.

Michael McCloskey is president of Michael McCloskey Design Group in Marblehead ( ). A founding member of the Marblehead 20|20 Foundation ( ) and Chairman of the Architecture and Urban Design Committee, Michael is also the Chairman of the Architectural Design Review Board, and an instructor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.