When many people first move into a new home, visions of transforming their new place into their own personal castle begin to form. But as exciting as such transformations can be, before you go mapping out plans for a moat and drawbridge, you'll want to consider your town's zoning laws, which can greatly limit what you're legally allowed to do with your property.
Zoning laws are designed to regulate what a person can and can't do with their property when it comes to building. These govern building issues with respect to height, use, bulk and density. Zoning regulations can change quite often, depending on how much your community is changing and developing. Generally, these laws won't prohibit you from making renovations that are consistent with your existing house. For instance, if you live in a residential neighborhood and were hoping to add a bedroom onto your house, the zoning restrictions with regards to use shouldn't be a concern. However, if you intend to add a room onto your house such as a shed or a detached garage, there could very well be existing laws that prohibit such add-ons.
Typically, the zoning laws you'll want to pay most attention to are those addressing height and bulk. If you're hoping to raise the roof of your home and add upwards, this might be illegal, as it could negatively affect the property value of your neighbors by making their homes seem less valuable.
Should such laws exist but you still harbor the desire to build up, you can apply for a variance, which can be a costly endeavor that may or may not work out in the long run. A variance is essentially an exception to the zoning regulations, one that will allow you to renovate as you choose regardless of existing laws. Getting your local zoning board to grant you a variance, however, is no small task. If you're really set on making a home improvement that doesn't comply with zoning regulations, you'll likely have to hire a lawyer and possibly even an architect or engineer to prove you need the variance. But even a lawyer and the testimony of professionals do not guarantee your zoning board will grant you a variance.
It's also important to note that you'll need a variance should you decide to change the use of your home. For instance, if your home is defined as solely residential but you choose to turn part of your home into a doctor's office or even a law office, you won't be allowed to do so without first being granted a variance from the local zoning board.
Before building onto your property, it's also beneficial to know the setback distance, or the mandated distance between the building area and the property line. Such distances are established for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to provide you and your neighbors with privacy so all parties don't feel as though they're sitting in each other's laps when in the privacy of their own homes. Such regulations also exist to address accessibility and ventilation concerns. The setback distance should be included on your property's survey plat, which you should have received when you purchased your home. It is essential you know the setback distance before doing add-ons of any sort, as violations of the distance can result in you being forced to remove them entirely, a costly mistake that can leave you on the hook for several thousands of dollars.
Another thing to consider is whether or not you have any easements or deed restrictions on your property, which can negate your right to build any add-ons. Again, if there are any of these on your property, they should be listed on your survey plat. An easement is essentially a restriction on your property that exists to provide easy access to utilities or other services. Typically, an easement is placed on a property by the government, meaning they are the lone people allowed to build on a designated area. This doesn't necessarily mean they will build on that designated area, but they and only they have the right to.
A deed restriction essentially limits what you can do with the property. Typically, a deed restriction is a condition of sale set forth by the previous homeowner in order to protect certain areas of the property such as wetlands or wooded areas. Your municipality can also put a deed restriction on your property to prohibit further development. Neither of these should come as a surprise, though, as they are typically conditions the seller informs prospective buyers of immediately.
While you might have purchased your home with visions of creating a contemporary castle, it's good to keep in mind just how grandiose you can make your new dig likely relies less on your wallet and more on your town's zoning laws.