Understanding building codes and zoning laws

Home for sale in Dana Point. Click photo for details.

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When buying (or selling) a home, it’s important to be cognizant of a property’s local zoning and code violations. If you’re thinking about adding onto a property, doing a remodel, maybe subdividing to generate some supplemental income, knowing where your property stands in terms of its code compliance as well as its zoning restrictions can yield lots of crucial information on your house hunt.

What Are Code Violations?

If your home falls short of a county or municipal building code, it has a code violation. Many homes have some form of code violation. This is because building codes change all the time, and a house that was code-compliant when you bought it may now lag behind current standards. These innocent violations are “grandfathered” in, which means they are not regarded as violations if the home was up to code when it was built.

How do you know when a property was built, when any upgrades were completed and whether it’s in violation of codes or zoning ordinances?

See what the OC Property Assessor shows. Call your City’s Building and Code Enforcement Department and ask them for any permits pulled on the property. Ask them about any non-conforming use.  Ask when and how a non-conforming use has to become conforming. Ask if the property is a “legal non-conforming use.” Further, your Realtor should have access to tools that shed a lot more light on the current status of your prospective home from a code and zoning perspective.

Most serious code violations happen because the homeowner adds more living space without the proper permission. Other examples include water heaters or electrical points installed without a permit, failure to use non-flame retardant roofing material and the absence of smoke detectors: the list is endless.

Why are Zoning Laws Important?

Is my home legal? Can I get a loan on my home? Can I rebuild my home if destroyed? These questions can be answered if you know whether your property is in compliance with local zoning codes or not. A property’s zoning status is classified as legal, legal nonconforming (“grandfathered”) or illegal.  Legal compliance means that a property conforms to current code and can be rebuilt if destroyed, and qualifies for a FNMA loan.  Legal non-conforming means that at one time the property complied with zoning code but does not currently comply, but the nonconforming use may continue; generally these homes can be rebuilt and qualify for a FNMA loan.   Illegal indicates that the property does not conform to the zoning code and must be restored or removed, and cannot be rebuilt if destroyed and do not qualify for a FNMA loan.

What about remodeling and illegal uses?  Adding an addition to a home without permits does not automatically make the property illegal; being non-permitted is not the same as being an illegal use in the zoning.  If the addition would normally be allowed by zoning, the issue of non-permitted areas can often be resolved by working with your building department and obtaining letter of compliance or a permit as long as the addition meets code.  However, if the building addition would not be allowed by zoning, the addition will most often need to be removed or significantly modified so that the addition complies with current zoning.