All About Zoning, Codes, And Building Permits

by Darwin Hall

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Before you begin any improvement project, it is essential that you investigate local zoning laws, building codes, and the permit process.

To learn about the legal restrictions in your area, call or visit your local building department.

If you want general information, the building department will probably refer you to whatever model codes it uses.

Some departments distribute presented booklets that include additional requirements or exceptions; others have complete summaries that you can buy.

If you have a specific project in mind, take as many drawings or photos as possible to the building department to determine the feasibility of your plans.  Most department personnel are unable to advise you on how to do something, but they can tell you if your plans comply with the code.

Because laws vary from county to county, don’t assume anything until you have inquired.

Zoning Ordinances

Zoning ordinances usually only effect exterior construction, not interior or remodeling.  Zoning protects the quality of the neighborhood.  In some areas, for example, codes allow only certain architectural styles.

Ordinances also prevent unsuitable use of property within a specific zone.  If your neighborhood is zoned for single-family houses, for example, the code protects you from a business that wants to build a factory or fast-food restaurant right next door to you.

home additionZoning regulations also define setbacks.  A setback is the distance a building must be from a property line.  These distances vary from front to back and side to side.  For example, the setback might be 25 to 30 feet; on the side, the setback may be only 5 to 10 feet.

Know the precise location of your property lines.  A fence or other boundary may not be an accurate indication of the actual property line.

There  may be other special zoning requirements in your area; find out before you begin detailed planning.  For example, your zone might limit building height.  Be sure to investigate this possibility if the site slopes.  Zoning regulations can block your plans in a number of ways.

For example, restrictions may require a larger setback on a second-story addition than on the existing first floor.  Depending on the size of your lot, the regulation may mean that the only place you may build is the rear of the house.

You may be required to provide off-street, enclosed parking for your car; if so, you will have to scrap plans to convert your garage to living space.

The building department may interpret an addition that provides living space for your parents as a conversion to a two-family dwelling.  If your neighborhood is zoned only for single-family dwellings, the department may disallow your plans.

The definition of a second dwelling causes many problems.  Some definitions would allow several families to live in the same house.  Other definitions go as far as to categorize a home as two dwellings if it contains two ovens.

If you find that your plans conflict with the zoning regulations, consider applying for a variance, or exception, to the law.  The permit appeals department will tell you how to apply for a variance hearing, if a hearing is necessary.

Once you present your case, the decision is up to the local planning board.  In addition to zoning regulations, there may be other restrictions.  For example, an easement gives someone else, such as a utility company or local municipality, the right to cross your property.

The deed may contain  a clause that limits or restricts use.  If you own a condominium or belong to a homeowner’s association, a set of conditions, covenants, and restrictions (CC&Rs) applies to your property.

Eliminate problems by examining your deed and checking with the building department.

Building Codes

Local governments determine building codes in order to establish minimum standards of construction.  They protect you and future owners of your property from safety hazards and faulty work.  In addition, building codes can serve as valuable reference tools that cite technical information and proven construction methods.

Different codes are used in different regions.  In the realm of basic construction, many local codes in states west of the Mississippi incorporate the Uniform Building Code.

Local codes in southern states often include the Standard Building Code.  The Basic Building Code is also often included in local codes.

small room designPlumbing codes may include the Uniform Plumbing Code, the Standard Plumbing Code, or the Basic Plumbing Code.

There are even more mechanical codes: the Uniform Mechanical Code, the Standard Mechanical Code, the Basic Mechanical Code, the Standard Gas Code, and the Code for the Installation of Heat-Producing Appliances.

The only code in effect throughout the country is the National Electrical Code, which is actually a section of the National Fire Code.  Finally, some states stipulate an energy code that specifies insulation, heating, cooling, and glazing requirements.

Your building department can tell you how to obtain a copy of the appropriate code.  If you plan to do much building, buy a copy and study it.  You may not need the complete code; a condensed version may be sufficient.  If you have questions or disputes, however, refer to the complete code.

The building department influences your project by specifying:

  • The type of materials that you may use.  Can you use plastic pipe for your water supply?  What size wallboard do you need for the garage?
  • Whether you may do the work yourself.  Some codes require that a licensed professional handle electricity and plumbing.
  • Structural requirements and installation techniques.  For example, the code will tell you how large joists must be, or how posts must be attached to beams.

Building Permits

Improvement projects that change the structure, size, safety, or use of living space require a building permit.  Projects that fall within the scope of normal maintenance, such as painting, wallpapering, roofing projects that leave the sheathing intact, or window and door replacement, do not require a permit.

To obtain a permit, you need to submit working drawings, a site or plot plan, a foundation plan, a floor plan, elevations, and sections or details of various components.

If you project is small, a sketch and brief description of your intentions will probably suffice.  For larger projects, you may have to submit engineering reports, soil reports, a certificate of Worker’s Compensation insurance, and energy calculations.

Obtaining a permit takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks.  A permit may require that work commence within a certain period, usually within 120 days.  Some permits do not specify a completion date, but others do.

A typical time limit is 9 months to a year.  If your project is not finished by the completion date, you may need to obtain another permit.

Beside compliance with the law, a permit confers several advantages:

  • A permit validates any work done on your home that effects the resale value.
  • A permit decreases the possibility that an insurance company would cite your work as the cause of damage or fire from dubious origins.
  • A permit also provides an incentive for doing work with a sense of pride and integrity.
  • And, perhaps most important, the permit process necessitates thorough planning and estimating before you start a project — an effort that you will not regret.

Although building departments process most permits relating to home improvement, there are other departments that may issue separate permits or permit clearance.  The planning commission will check for zoning compliance.

The public health department usually regulates septic systems and wells.  Public works department checks for easements and may require a survey.  The fire department establishes regulations regarding smoke alarms and other life-protecting measures, although they are usually incorporated into local building requirements.

Environmental review boards, flood control commissions, and architectural review boards may also have jurisdiction over your project.

vaulted ceilings

Code Compliance

When you improve an older home, the codes usually apply only to new work.  The building department generally does not expect you to bring the entire house up to modern standards — unless, of course, the building inspector finds something that is a definite safety hazard.

Some existing conditions, such as plumbing, electrical wiring, and stairs, may be governed by modern codes, but most features of your home are governed only by the applicable code at the time of construction.

If the improvement involves more than a specified percentage of property value, however, you will have to bring the entire structure up to code.

If you are doing extensive plumbing and wiring changes in an older home, it makes sense to modernize and bring your systems up to code even if it is not required.  Spending a little more now may save a lot of grief later.


Your permit will include a schedule of inspections.  As a rule, the inspector will check an element of the job just before you cover it.  Even when a structure is built according to plans approved by the building department, the site inspector determines whether the construction meets code.

If the work does not meet the inspector’s standards, you must correct the work and undergo another inspection.

Most inspectors are more than willing to answer questions about the code or about their inspection of your work, but they may not advise you on how to do something, nor will they tell you what needs to be done.

If you are not sure your work will meet code, have a professional builder who knows your building codes take a look first.

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