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6 min read May 29, 2023

What is the Meaning of Variance in Real Estate and Zoning?

If you are a homeowner and want to make changes to your property, you need to get a variance approval. Read on to find out more about variance in real estate, types of variances, and the application process.

What is a Variance in Real Estate?

In real estate, the term “variance” typically refers to a legal permission or exception granted by a local zoning authority. It allows a property owner to deviate from certain zoning regulations or restrictions.

Local governments make zoning regulations to control land use. They ensure that different properties in an area follow a common pattern and structure.

A property owner can apply for a variance if they want to use their land in a way that is not permitted by the existing zoning regulations.

How Does Variance in Real Estate Work?

Variances work by allowing property owners to request exceptions or modifications to the existing zoning regulations. The zoning laws of the specific area do not change. The board grants exceptions under exceptional circumstances.

The variance rules are different in each municipality. Typically, the property or landowner applies along with a letter and the fee to the zoning board. The board reviews the application and notifies other property owners who may be affected by the changes.

They approve one condition. The property owner should prove that the existing regulations are affecting the functionality of their property.

Types of Variances in Real Estate

The reasons for applying for a zoning variance can be diverse. Mainly, there are two types of variances – use variance and area variance.

Property owners get limited time to make changes after variance is granted. However, the board does not impose a penalty if the owners don’t make the proposed changes.

Use Variance

This type of variance allows the property owner to use the land for a purpose that is not allowed by the current zoning regulations.

For example, a residential property owner wants to convert their home into a small business office. The area is zoned exclusively for residential use. In this case, the owner has to apply for a use variance for such a conversion.

Area or Dimensional Variance

An area variance is granted when a property owner seeks an exception to certain restrictions in the structure. These include size, height, setback requirements, or other physical characteristics of a structure.

For instance, a property owner wants to build a shed that exceeds the maximum height limit of the zoning regulations. They have to apply for an area variance.

How to Get Variance Approval?

There is a formal application process to get variance approval. It varies according to the jurisdiction and local zoning regulations. While the specific requirements and procedures may differ, here are the general steps to get a variance:

Step One: Identify the Need For a Variance

The property owner recognizes that their proposed land use or development plan does not comply with the current zoning regulations. This could be due to property use restrictions, height limits, or other physical features.

Step Two: Research Local Regulations

Homeowners should familiarize themselves with the local zoning rules and regulations. This includes identifying the correct zoning board or authority responsible for granting variances.

Step Three: Prepare the Variance Application

They need to prepare a formal application. It typically includes details such as the property’s location and proposal for changes in use or structure. The reasons for seeking the variance and supporting documents should be included.

Step Four: Submit the Application

The next step is to submit the variance application and fee to the relevant zoning board or authority. A letter needs to be attached specifying the details of the proposed variance.

Step Five: Review and Evaluation

The zoning board reviews the application. They check the impact on neighboring properties, community aesthetics, and public safety.

They also evaluate the adherence to the overall intent of the zoning regulations. The board may hold public hearings to gather input from interested parties.

Step Six: Decision and Public Hearing

The zoning board decides on the variance application. They may approve the variance request, give conditional approval, or deny the application altogether. The property owner is notified accordingly.

Step Seven: Appeal Process

If the variance application is denied, the property owner can appeal to change the decision. The appeal process varies depending on the jurisdiction. It may involve presenting the case to a higher-level board or seeking legal recourse.

Variance FAQs

How to Win a Variance Hearing?

Winning a variance hearing can be challenging. It depends on various factors and the specific circumstances surrounding your case.

However, you can win if you prepare a strong case by gathering relevant information and supporting evidence. You can consult or hire real estate agents to navigate the process.

Keep your neighbors updated about your variance application. Prepare before attending a variance hearing. Show compliance with the general intent of the zoning regulations. If you are ready to negotiate and compromise, you should be able to win the case.

How Much Does a Property Variance Cost?

The cost of obtaining a property variance can vary significantly depending on several factors. These include the jurisdiction, the complexity of the variance request, and any associated legal or professional fees.

The potential costs to consider are the application fees, supporting documentation costs, and the cost of public notification.

Some of the costs like professional fees and legal expenses are optional. You need to contact the town council for a cost estimate of the particular variance you are applying for.

Can Neighbors Stop a Variance?

It’s important to note that neighbors can express their concerns and objections. However, the zoning board makes the final decision on whether to grant a variance. They consider various factors.

These include compliance with the zoning regulations, the applicant’s justification for the variance, and the public interest.

It’s advisable for property owners seeking a variance to engage in open communication with neighbors early in the process. They should address the concerns, and consider any valid feedback.

Consulting professionals experienced in local zoning regulations and community engagement can also be beneficial.

The Bottom Line

Applying for variance approval is a detail-oriented process. Make sure you are aware of the current zoning regulations in your area before you apply for a variance. Taking professional help makes the process easy and increases the chances of approval.

If you want to make changes to your property, consult a real estate attorney or professional to avoid complications later.


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