Zoning change may kill homebuyer’s dream

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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I finally found a home I can afford but my dream is turning to a nightmare. The place is right next door to my parents’ house (where I live now), and its zoning has been changed recently to industrial. My lawyer says I’d have to apply for a zoning variance because no one has lived there for about four years.

Every other house on this block would be in violation of the new zoning if they weren’t grandfathered in. I went down to city hall and an official there agreed with my lawyer’s assessment. If I bought the home and moved in, could the city throw me out?
— Tommy

Dear Tommy,
This is a property with a lot of potential land mines, so I suggest you tiptoe lightly.

First, there are some unanswered questions that constrict my ability to present an answer. Has someone — perhaps a lender — posted the place for sale or are you simply seeking out its owner in hopes of buying it? Or has that long-absent owner/occupant finally returned to sell the place?

These questions are pertinent, because it’s patently deceptive if someone is actively marketing this house without disclosing the big zoning cloud that looms over it.

As for the other issues you raise, although every city and county has different zoning laws, it’s not uncommon to find a use-it-or-lose-it provision on the books that sets a time period in which a specific use (like residential) must be re-established, lest that property lose its “grandfather” rights and (or) be considered abandoned. As implied, these grandfather rights protect pre-existing uses that otherwise would be considered nonconforming in a given neighborhood.

You need to do a little more research. It could be that a developer has a light industrial use planned for the lot or lots that are contiguous to the house. Or, the city may have an alternative vision for the neighborhood to replace the residences.

Talk with a city planner to see if there are any development plans in place for the site and who is behind them, and chat with neighbors to see what they have learned. Your parents, by the way, will no doubt be interested in future plans for their neighborhood. Of course, you will need to know the identity of the tract’s owner. That information should be in city deed records.

It seems you would have a shot at winning a variance barring any unseen agendas out there. After all, cities typically don’t discourage a property tax-paying occupant.

To accomplish this, you would need to file an application for a variance with the zoning board of appeals — or some equivalent board in your town — to advance it to the public-hearing phase. Fill it out and include a detailed description of why you need a zoning variance. Your rationale should be relatively cut-and-dried.

To keep the process moving swiftly, check with city hall officials before your scheduled hearing to make sure you have included everything required on the form. You may need the approval of your neighbors in the form of notarized documents or some other form of certification.

It’s doubtful you will get much resistance from neighbors since the block is still a residential area (despite the zoning) and no one likes a persistently vacant house.

However, simply buying the place and occupying it with no zoning variance puts your investment in jeopardy. The city might not kick you out, but it could certainly cause trouble.

And from an investment perspective, you may not want to get caught in the middle of a zoning transition because that could make the resale of that house even more difficult down the road. Plus, your quality of life could be become less desirable, depending on what types of buildings crop up around you.

You also might consider moving your dream to another part of the city. I hope it works out well.

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