How a Lawyer Can Help You Build Unique Home Features
When you build your dream home, you could face obstacles to including the unique home features you want. Local, state, and federal regulations and laws restrict many aspects of construction, from the number of hours that construction crews can work to the materials you can use.
The U.S. has over 1.3 million lawyers. Some of these restrictions can be overcome with good lawyering or creative workarounds. Here are ten obstacles a lawyer can help you overcome to build your unique home features.
Land Use Laws
Owning a vacant lot does not give you unfettered authority to build on that lot. Moreover, the existence of a structure on a piece of land should not be interpreted to mean that you can build additional structures, modify the structure, or tear the structure down.
Most people are familiar with zoning laws, which are discussed later. Zoning laws tell you the type of structure that can be built on the property.
Fewer people are familiar with land-use laws. Land use laws tell you the uses to which your land may be put. For example, a piece of land might be subject to land use laws that prohibit all structures on the land because it lays along a wetland or flood plain that protects other lands from flooding. Similarly, a piece of land might be subject to land use laws that limit its use to farmland without structures.
This is why you should not assume that an undeveloped lot is available to be developed into a building lot. Land use restrictions might permit it to be used for private hunting, farming, or camping, but not for building structures, no matter which unique home features you want to add.
Land use laws usually do not allow a variance. If you do not discover that your lot is subject to land use laws until after your garage door company completes a free-standing garage on the lot, you will likely be subject to a fine. Worse yet, local officials will probably make you pay to remove the structure.
Thus, the only role of a lawyer will be to interpret land-use laws that apply to a lot under consideration and advise you whether you will be able to build a structure to contain your unique home features on it.
Zoning laws might seem similar to land use laws. They tell you what types of structures you can build on a piece of property. But zoning laws have a few differences from land-use laws:
- Zoning laws usually group together particular types of development into zones like residential zones, rural zones, commercial zones, and industrial zones.
- The local planning commission makes these decisions based on where they want particular types of development to occur. Since the planning commission makes the zoning decisions, they can be lobbied at planning commission meetings to zone a particular area in a particular way.
- Since the planning commission makes zoning decisions based on the way they want development to distribute around their city or county, they can grant variances. A variance is where the planning commission grants an exception to the zoning plan. For example, if you want to build storage units to provide a local rural area with storage services, you might petition the planning commission to grant a variance so you can build storage units in an area zoned for agriculture.
When you are planning your home, you might need to check how your lot is zoned to determine if you will be allowed to build your unique home features. For example, your lot’s zoning might prevent you from including a horse corral at your home. To include a horse corral in an area zoned for residential, you might need a variance.
A lawyer can help you research the zoning for your lot and petition the planning commission for a variance to accommodate your unique home features.
Local ordinances are laws that are passed by your city council or county commission. Like land-use laws, local ordinances usually do not allow variances or exceptions. This means that if a local ordinance prohibits your unique home features, you will need to either lobby to have the law changed or find a workaround.
For example, many cities and counties limit the number and size of RVs that you can “park” on your residential property. Thus, if your home’s blueprints include a large parking pad for your RVs and boats, you might violate the local ordinances on RV and boat parking.
But if you plan to build unique home features like a large RV garage, you may be able to skirt these limits. Your RVs might not be considered “parked” under the local ordinance if they are off the road and concealed inside a garage. In other words, some local ordinances make a distinction between ” RV storage” and “RV parking.”
A lawyer will be able to figure out how to get around local ordinances or tell you that they cannot be escaped and that you need to find an alternative. So, for example, if the ordinances prohibit the number of RVs you can “keep” on your property, police might give you a ticket whether you “park” them or “store” them. In this case, you might need to find an alternative, like a commercial storage facility where you can pay to store your RVs and boats. These facilities might be excluded from the local ordinance since they are commercial properties rather than residential properties.
Building codes are another source of limitations on the unique home features you can include in your plans. Building codes are standards prescribed by the construction industry. In many cases, the local agency responsible for construction will just adopt the International Building Code (IRC) and International Residential Code (IRC) rather than copying and pasting the codes into their local regulations.
Most building codes go to the health and safety features that must be included in a home. For example, building codes describe the height of steps in a staircase and the location of the staircase’s railing.
Building codes are not subject to variances. If your home’s plans violate building codes, your local building regulators will require you to change your plans. However, a lawyer can help you find ways to comply with the building code and accommodate the unique home features in your blueprints.
In most cases, the building codes address the specific home feature you want to add and you just need to comply with the code. For example, the IRC incorporates the international standards for building sunrooms. These standards address the types of electrical outlets required, the requirement for exterior lighting for sunrooms with exits, and the structural support required for sunroom additions. If your plans do not meet the IRC’s requirements, your sunroom contractor should be able to modify them to comply.
Before you can receive a building permit, you will need to prepare plans or pay an engineer or architect to prepare plans for you. The plans will describe to your builder or remodeling contractors what unique home features they are supposed to build and how they will build it.
Specifically, the plans must include:
- Structural information about the framing, walls, floor, ceiling, doors, windows, and foundation.
- Electrical system information about the location and type of wiring, outlets, fixtures, and switches.
- Plumbing system information about the location and specifications of fixtures, pipes, and sewer connections.
- Mechanical system information about the heating, ventilation, and cooling system.
Before you can begin construction, your plans must be approved by the local building authority. An inspector will review your plans to make sure they comply with all the requirements listed above. If the plans do not meet the building codes, land use laws, and city and county ordinances that apply to the zoning for your lot, the inspector will reject your plans.
This decision is usually reviewable, but unless the inspector has misinterpreted your plans or the building code, a lawyer probably will not be able to help you reverse the decision. Instead, you probably need an engineer or architect to revise your plans so you can re-submit them to the building authority.
Once your plans have been approved, you will receive a building permit. This permit will allow you to construct your unique home features without being shut down by the local building authority. More importantly, you will be able to obtain a certificate of occupancy when the project is completed and passes inspection.
The process of obtaining a building permit is fairly routine. You must file your plans with a fee and an application. When you hire a contractor for the construction, the contractor will be required to file the application. If you are doing the construction yourself, you can file the application.
The issue that sometimes comes up in construction is when a building permit is required. Depending on your project, you might need a lawyer to review the local building ordinances to determine if your project requires a building permit.
Generally speaking, a building permit is required for any construction that affects the structure, electrical system, plumbing system, or mechanical system of a home. So, for example, an addition that includes a bathroom will require a permit because you will need to build a structure, including pouring a concrete foundation, run electrical wires, run pipes and a sewer drain, and run ducts for heating and cooling.
On the other hand, some projects do not require a permit. Some examples of work that does not require a permit include :
- Replacement doors and windows, if they are being installed in existing openings.
- Interior and exterior painting.
- Repairing a loose or damaged roof shingle.
Some projects that require a building permit may surprise you. Depending on where you live, you may need a permit to:
- Build a fence.
- Pour a driveway.
- Install a new air conditioner.
After your project is complete, a building inspector inspects your construction. If your construction does not match up with the permit, fails to meet building codes, or uses shoddy or unapproved materials, the inspector will deny your certificate of occupancy and you will need to repair the work before a re-inspection.
Environmental laws are usually not considered when granting a building permit or inspecting a building. But if you violate environmental regulations, the state might sue you and ask a judge to force you to change or tear down your unique home features.
For example, if your land borders wetlands and you build a gazebo that interferes with the birds’ flight paths, you might have violated environmental regulations and laws. As a result, you might need to modify the structure or tear it down altogether.
A lawyer will be critically important if your home violates environmental laws. These laws are usually enforced in court and you might not find out about the violation until long after construction is completed. Instead of facing a huge bill to tear down your structure, you will save money by having a lawyer research local environmental laws before your commercial home renovation begins.
Covenants are restrictions that run with the land. In other words, you are bound by promises made in the original land grant even if the land was originally granted hundreds of years ago.
Some covenants are not enforceable. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive covenants in 1948. These illegal covenants were common before 1948 to prevent owners from selling their homes or land to racial minorities.
Other covenants might seem a bit strange, but were probably created as a substitute for zoning. For example, a covenant might say that firewood processors must locate in a specific area of town near forests so trucks do not need to travel through town carrying lumber.
Having a lawyer research the covenants tied to your land is essential before you begin construction. A covenant might limit the number of detached buildings on your lot or the height of your fence. You would have no way of knowing that you violated the covenant, and might need to tear down a structure, without first doing the research.
Easements are subsidiary rights in a piece of property that runs with the land. For example, your land might include an easement for an underground oil pipeline or a public bike path along the back of your property. You cannot interfere with the easement, even though it runs across your property, because the easement holder has property rights in its easement.
To make sure your unique home features do not interfere with someone else’s easement, you should:
- Have a lawyer research whether your property has any easements on it.
- Hire a company that provides land surveying services to identify the specific location of the easement.
- Discuss the scope of the easement and what you can and cannot build on or by the easement.
While your unique home features are built, you could run afoul of worker safety regulations. Some features might need to be modified simply because the workers cannot safely build it. For example, a structurally sound balcony overhanging a gorge might look amazing, but building it might become a nightmare for you, your building contractor, and your home owners insurance companies.
When you design a home, it should reflect your unique personality. But make sure you have a lawyer to do the research to ensure your unique home features are legal.