Buying a Non-Conforming Property: The Complete Guide

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Written By Owner

An experienced marketing consultant with a decade of hands-on experience in real estate.

Have your heart set on a property that doesn’t align with the standard zoning or building codes? Now you’re thinking to yourself, “Should I invest in it because of this amazing offer or should I pass on the deal because of the inherent risks involved?” Don’t worry, you are not alone! It’s a dilemma many potential buyers face.

Often such non conforming properties come with a great price tag and potential ROI. On the other, they can pose significant challenges like difficulty in getting a mortgage, selling the property in the future, etc.

When buying such a property, you need to be very vary of the type of property, your plans on how to use it or repurpose it, and the paperwork and legal use requirements. You need to start by understand the different types of non-conforming properties and how to go about buying them- all this while understanding the necessary requirements, the paperwork involved, the upsides and the downsides.

1. What do you Mean by non-confirming properties?

Non-conforming properties are not in compliance with the current zoning regulations for the area it is located in.

They are unique and different from the usual houses you see on the streets. Such properties can be converted into industrial warehouses with a relaxed urban vibe or historic buildings with impressive architecture.

These properties allow you to break away from the ordinary and embrace a more individual and distinct living experience.


2. Buying non-conforming properties

Buying a non-conforming property can offer you an extraordinary living experience where you can own a unique piece of real-estate which can be creatively repurposed to make all your dreams come true. 

2.1 Types of Non-Conforming Properties you can buy

From urban lofts that exude style to sustainable homes that indulge in eco-conscious living, there are numerous possibilities when it comes to non-conforming properties. Let’s explore these extraordinary pieces of real estate and see what type of options the real-estate market offer.

2.1.1 Converted Warehouses: Urban Treasure

Warehouse turned home - Non confirming Property

Imagine an ancient industrial warehouse converted into a chique, rustic loft for a small family.

Richly covered with open spaces, high ceilings, and charm from the historic elements carried forward even after the repurpose. 

Such houses may be great, unique, and unconventional places to live in but are characterized as non-conforming properties due to the nature of the building.

The change from an industrial space to a chic home adds character and history to these houses, making them a popular choice for people looking for an urban oasis.

2.1.2 Historic Buildings: Cherishing the Past

Historic Buildings - Non confirming Property

Historic buildings, like converted churches, schools, or factories, have impressive architecture and fascinating histories.

\They are carefully restored to keep their unique charm while providing modern comfort. 

Owning a historic property means being a part of its rich past and safeguarding its cultural importance for future generations.

Such properties are also non-conforming, as the structures do not conform to the current building standards.

2.1.3 Mixed-Use Properties: Where Life Meets Convenience

Mixed- Home - Non confirming Property

Mixed-use properties bring together commercial and residential spaces, creating a vibrant live-work-play lifestyle.

Picture living above a café or boutique, with everything you need just a short walk away. 

These properties offer a unique chance for entrepreneurs to merge their passion with their profession, creating a harmonious and convenient living space.



Tiny Home - Non confirming Property

2.1.4 Tiny Homes: Simplifying Living

Tiny homes encourage minimalistic living in small, eco-friendly houses. These compact yet practical spaces inspire decluttering and focusing on what truly matters. 

With a minor environmental impact, tiny homes let people embrace a more sustainable lifestyle while enjoying the freedom to travel and explore. 

Tiny houses are non-conforming, not only due to their sizes but also their type, as these are often considered recreational rather than the owners’ primary residences. Tiny homes can range from 80 sq. ft. to 400 sq. ft.

2.1.5 Floating Homes: Embracing Waterfront Living

Floating Home - Non confirming Property

Floating homes offer an unconventional living experience on the water.

These houses float on lakes, rivers, or coastal waters, providing a fantastic waterfront lifestyle.

Living in a floating home means waking up to stunning views, gentle waves, and a close connection to nature that’s hard to find elsewhere.

2.1.6 Earthships: Living with Nature

Sustainable Living

Earthships are eco-friendly and self-sustaining homes designed to work with nature. These unique houses use recycled materials, solar heating, and rainwater harvesting, making them energy-efficient and environmentally friendly places to live.

All these properties are different than usually seen residential and commercial buildings due to their physical attributes, different planning and amenities structuring, etc., making them unique, thus “non-conforming.”


2.2 How to Buy a Non-Conforming Property

Purchasing a non-conforming property can be a great way to enhance your lifestyle with creativity and expression.

Still, it also needs careful planning and consideration due to the legalities and other factors involved. Let’s explore the essential steps to help you through this exciting process.

2.2.1 Define Your Vision: Discover Your Dream Home

+Define Your Vision: Discover Your Dream Home

Before exploring non-conforming properties, think about your ideal living space. Consider your lifestyle, design preferences, and what features are essential to you. 

Would you like the historic charm of a repurposed church or an office building created decades ago, or are you more attracted to the modern appeal of a converted warehouse? Knowing your vision will help you find the non-conforming property that genuinely speaks to you.

2.2.2 Research Zoning Regulations: Know the Rules

Non-conforming properties are usually not governed by traditional zoning rules; hence, it is crucial to understand the local laws that could affect the property you wish to buy. 

 Research Zoning Regulations

Zoning regulations are a legal framework to determine how land and buildings can be used, so knowing them is crucial to avoid potential issues. Some areas may have strict rules for renovations or specific permits needed for certain properties. 

Researching zoning and relevant laws will help you be well-prepared for limitations or opportunities related to the property you choose.

Non-conforming properties might have “grandfather clauses,” which let them keep operating as they were built long before the latest zoning rules were set. But it’s crucial to know the restrictions these clauses impose and how they can affect future changes or expansions.

2.2.3 Work with a Knowledgeable Agent: Guided by Expertise

A knowledgeable agent specializing in non-conforming properties can be a great help. A skilled agent knows the market well, can offer more options, and provides valuable support during the buying process. They can find properties that fit your needs, negotiate on your behalf, and ensure that your choices and decisions are well-informed.

2.2.4. Obtain Professional Inspections: Uncover Hidden Truths

 Obtain Professional Inspections

Before buying a non-conforming property, it’s crucial to do thorough research. Get professional property inspections done to discover any possible problems or needed renovations. 

Inspections can uncover hidden defects that may require expensive repairs, giving you a clear idea of the property’s condition and helping you make a wise investment decision.

Non-conforming properties might have structural or code compliance problems that impact their marketability and insurability. 

Getting professional inspections can help you find these issues early on, so you can understand the risks and costs involved before deciding to buy.

2.2.5 Secure Financing: Tailored Solutions for Unique Properties

Secure Financing:

When buying non-conforming properties, it’s essential to consider specialized financing solutions that suit their unique features. 

Look into options like renovation loans or portfolio lending that cater to these properties’ specific needs. Working with a lender experienced in non-conforming properties will help you secure the best financing terms for your extraordinary home or business.

Getting loans for non-conforming properties can be more challenging as some lenders see them as higher-risk investments. Having a pre-approval from a lender experienced in these properties can boost your buying position and make the process smoother

Let’s say

You decide to purchase a stunning residence which was earlier a historic building in the heart of a beautiful neighborhood. Before moving ahead, you should research local zoning rules and laws to see if the property falls under mixed-use zoning, allowing for residential and commercial use.

Non-conforming properties that fall under the mixed-use zoning categories are the only ones that can be used for either of these purposes, which depends upon the location as well. For example, a non-conforming property that may be located in the middle of a residential area, may fall under residential zoning only.

You can decide to collaborate with a real estate agent experienced in non-conforming properties, who can introduce you to a set of similar listings and provides expert guidance on the purchasing process. If you get everything in place, you can use the place as your home and as a possible place of business.

Also Read:
* What not to tell a realtor when buying a house?
* Why buying a condo is a bad idea?

2.3. Should You Buy Non-Conforming Properties?

Non-conforming properties offer unique and extraordinary choices for those looking for something different. But buying a non-conforming property requires careful consideration, depending on your preferences and how much risk you’re comfortable with.

Purchasing a non-conforming property is a decision that hinges on your individual preferences and risk tolerance. Here are some factors to consider:

2.3.1 Uniqueness and Creativity:

A non-conforming property is an excellent choice if you want a different home that reflects your personality. These properties offer a chance to be creative and express your individuality.

Whether it’s a historic building with impressive architecture or a converted warehouse with an industrial vibe, each property has a unique charm that sets it apart from regular homes.

2.3.2 Potential for Appreciation:

Some non-conforming properties, especially in up-and-coming neighborhoods, have the potential to appreciate.

As these neighborhoods grow and become more popular, the demand for unique homes can increase, driving the property’s worth. If you want a home that can be a wise investment, consider a non-conforming property in the correct location.

2.3.3. Entrepreneurial Opportunities:

Non-conforming properties, especially mixed-use properties, are perfect for small business owners and creative entrepreneurs. 

They offer a chance to combine work and living spaces, creating a convenient live-work-play environment. Running your business ventures while living just steps away can be a great opportunity. 

But in case zoning laws prevent any potential use of any given property, despite value appreciation, that property can be a risky investment in the long term.

2.3.4 Navigating the Decision: Assessing Risk and Comfort

Owning a non-conforming property comes with challenges. It involves evaluating zoning regulations, unique property features, and potential resale concerns. Understanding your comfort level with handling uncertainties and risks associated with non-conforming properties is essential.

2.4 Identifying Non-Conforming Properties

To identify non-conforming properties, you’ll need a keen eye, knowledge of zoning laws, and access to the right resources.

Though they may not fit typical regulations, these homes can provide exceptional living experiences and endless possibilities. Here are some ways to begin your search for such a property:

2.4.1 Check Zoning Records

One of the primary sources for identifying non-conforming properties is the zoning records. Zoning laws dictate the permitted uses and regulations for properties within a given area, ensuring proper development and land utilization. To find out if a property is non-conforming, you can explore the following steps:

2.4.2 Looking at Zoning Maps

Zoning maps demarcate the various zones within a community, such as residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use. By consulting these maps, you can gain insights into the zoning designation of a property, allowing you to determine if it adheres to the current regulations.

2.4.3 Speaking with Local Planning Departments

Local planning departments have all the updates of zoning information. Discussing with planning officials can provide valuable insights into the zoning regulations applicable to a property. They can also shed light on whether the property’s use deviates from the current zoning guidelines, making it non-conforming.

2.4.4 Consult a Real Estate Agent

Experienced real estate agents have knowledge of the local market and the properties available for sale. They are well-versed in identifying non-conforming properties and can guide your search. Here’s how a real estate agent can be your trusted companion:

2.4.5 Access to Listing Data

Real estate agents have access to a wealth of information when it comes to properties available for purchase. They have access to extensive databases and listings, which they can use to help their clients find the perfect non confirming property.. 

2.4.6 Knowledge of Local Zoning Regulations

Agents familiar with the area’s zoning regulations can quickly spot properties that deviate from the norm. Their understanding of zoning laws allows them to identify opportunities for unique and unconventional living spaces.

2.4.7 Hire a Land Use Consultant:

In some cases, identifying non-conforming properties may require the expertise of a land use consultant. These professionals are adept at analyzing intricate zoning issues and can provide valuable insights into complex cases. Here’s how a land use consultant can be of help:

2.4.8 Navigating Complex Zoning Scenarios:

Some properties may have particular nuances that call for expert analysis. A land use consultant can navigate these complexities and clarify the property’s non-conforming status.

2.4.9 Assessing Development Potential:

Land use consultants can evaluate the development potential of non-conforming properties, helping you understand the possibilities and limitations for future modifications or expansions.

3. Implications and Challenges of Buying Non-Conforming Properties

The path to owning a non-conforming property has its implications and challenges. Flexibility, regulatory hurdles, resale considerations, financing difficulties, renovation costs, and insurance considerations all factor into the equation. 

Aspect Implications and Benefits Challenges and Considerations
Flexibility Offers flexibility for refurbishing, repurposing, or restoring. Use may be limited or subject to specific restrictions.
Understanding Existing Use Ensures property’s uniqueness with a lawful non-conforming status. Restricts significant modifications or expansions.
Potential for Future Development Aligns with local zoning regulations for flexibility. Must align plans with zoning requirements to avoid legal issues.
Regulatory Challenges N/A Requires understanding zoning laws, seeking variances, and ensuring compliance.
Resale Considerations Unique properties can attract niche buyers. Limited market appeal and complex valuation.
Financing Difficulties N/A Securing financing can be challenging with higher interest rates.
Renovation Costs Opportunity for distinctive living spaces. High renovation costs, preservation efforts, and balancing investment.
Insurance Considerations N/A Requires specialized insurance and addresses liability concerns.

4. Benefits of Buying Non-Conforming Properties

Non-conforming properties stand as alluring pieces with the promise of an extraordinary living experience. These unique homes deviate from standard zoning regulations, offering a canvas for creativity and individual expression. 

Benefits of Buying Non-Conforming Properties

4.1 Unique Living Experience

Unique properties are fascinating! They catch your heart with their individuality. Each property stands apart from the ordinary, becoming a haven of self-expression and innovation. Here’s what makes these homes unique:

4.2 Personalization Possibilities

From converted warehouses with an old-school vibe of open plans and a rustic feel to historic buildings with rich histories, every non-conforming property offers an opportunity to create a living space that stands out, helping you make your mark.

Blending History with Modernity: Many non-conforming properties possess historical significance, adding a touch of charm and character to everyday living while being thoughtfully updated for modern living standards and basic creature comforts.

4.3 Potential for Appreciation

Beyond the uniqueness, non-conforming properties may offer excellent appreciation potential. In certain situations, these homes become coveted gems in up-and-coming neighborhoods, contributing to potential long-term value growth:

4.4 Distinctive Market Appeal

Non-conforming properties often attract niche buyers who appreciate their uniqueness, leading to increased demand and value appreciation over time.

Investing in Emerging Areas: Some non-conforming properties are found in neighborhoods experiencing revitalization, where a combination of creative energy and community investment can lead to significant appreciation.

4.5 Investment Potential

Apart from being exceptional living spaces, non-conforming properties can be great investment opportunities. For investors with an eye for unconventional paths, such properties can provide unique ways for financial growth:

4.6 Creative Renovation Projects

Investors with a vision for restoring and reimagining non-conforming properties can undertake exciting renovation projects that attract buyers and renters.

4.7 Diversifying Investment Portfolio

Non-conforming properties bring diversity to an investment portfolio, providing a unique alternative to traditional real estate investments.

5. Possible Use Cases and Scenarios

5.1 Creative Living Space

Non-conforming properties are a haven for creativity, offering homeowners the freedom to design a living space that transcends the ordinary. Here are some ways these homes become sanctuaries of self-expression:

5.2 Architectural Uniqueness

From converted warehouses with open floor plans to historic buildings with original detailing, non-conforming properties boast architecture that serves as a blank canvas for personalization.

5.3 Artistic Interiors

Homeowners can curate creative interiors that reflect their passions, interests, and individuality, turning their homes into living masterpieces.

5.4 Home Business

For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, non-conforming properties present a world of possibilities for home-based businesses:

5.5 Mixed-Use Properties

Non-conforming properties with a mix of commercial and residential spaces offer entrepreneurs the convenience of a live-work-play environment.

Creative Studios and Workspaces: Artists, designers, and creators can set up dedicated studios and workspaces in these unique properties, fostering a productive and inspiring atmosphere.

5.6 Rental Income

Non-conforming properties hold great potential for generating rental income, appealing to investors seeking unconventional opportunities:

5.7 Short-Term Rentals

Some non-conforming properties can be ideal for short-term rentals, offering travelers a one-of-a-kind experience and investors an opportunity for higher returns.

5.8 Niche Market Appeal

Non-conforming properties can attract tenants seeking distinctive living experiences, positioning them as sought-after rentals in the market.

6. Is the use of non-conforming property considered a zoning violation?

6.1 Non-Conforming Use: Embracing the Grandfather Clause

The use of a non-conforming property itself is not considered a zoning violation as long as the property’s non-conforming status is legally established and complies with the zoning regulations applicable at the time of its creation. 

Zoning violations typically refer to instances where a property is being used in a manner that does not conform to the current zoning laws or has not received the necessary approvals or variances.

Non-conforming properties are those that were legally established and used by zoning regulations at the time of their creation but no longer conform to the current zoning standards due to changes in zoning laws over time. As a result, these properties are “grandfathered” in and are permitted to continue their existing use, even though it may not align with the current zoning designation.

Such properties may be subject to certain restrictions and limitations. Depending on local regulations, significant modifications or expansions to the parcel may be restricted or require additional approvals from city officials. Also, suppose a non-conforming property ceases its use or remains unused for a specified period. In that case, it may lose its non-conforming status and be required to comply with current zoning regulations.

Such properties may deviate from standard zoning regulations, leading to questions about their legality and potential zoning violations. In this section, we will explore the concept of non-conforming use, zoning variances, spot zoning, and the laws that govern these extraordinary properties.

  • Continued Use: Non-conforming properties can typically continue their current use despite changes in zoning laws as long as they remain in compliance with the regulations at the time of their establishment.
  • Restrictions on Modifications: While non-conforming properties can maintain their current use, significant modifications or expansions may be restricted or subject to additional requirements to bring the property closer to conformity.
  • Abandonment and Reversion: If a non-conforming property ceases its use or remains unused for a specified period, it may lose its non-conforming status and be required to comply with current zoning regulations.

6.3 Zoning Variance: Exceptional Circumstances

A zoning variance is a legal mechanism that allows property owners to deviate from specific zoning regulations due to unique circumstances or hardships. If a property owner can show that strict adherence to the zoning rules would cause undue hardship or prevent reasonable use of the property, they can apply for a variance.

When a Zoning Variance May Be Considered:

  • Undue Hardship: Property owners must show that strict compliance with zoning regulations would cause significant hardship, making it difficult or impractical to use the property as intended.
  • Public Interest: Variance applications are often evaluated based on their impact on the surrounding community. The use of the property should not adversely affect the public interest.
  • Maintaining Character: The proposed variance should remain the neighborhood’s essential character.

6.4 Spot Zoning: An Exception Among the Norms

Spot zoning refers to the practice of singling out a particular property or small area within a larger zoning district for a unique or different zoning designation. This practice may occur when a property owner seeks special treatment for their property, often in a way that contradicts the broader zoning plan for the area.

Spot Zoning Considerations:

  • Disparate Treatment: Spot zoning can lead to concerns of unequal treatment among property owners within the same area or zoning district.
  • Challenges to Validity: Courts may scrutinize spot zoning cases to ensure they are based on valid planning reasons rather than serving private interests at the expense of the public good.

6.5 Laws Relating to Zoning: Balancing the Public Good

Zoning laws are local regulations established by municipalities to govern land use within their jurisdictions.

These laws aim to promote orderly development, protect property values, and maintain the quality of life for residents.

Zoning ordinances typically divide areas into specific zones, such as residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use, each with its own set of regulations.

Critical Aspects of Zoning Laws:

  • Zoning Maps and Designations: Zoning maps outline the boundaries of different zoning districts and the permitted uses within each district.
  • Conditional Use Permits: Some zoning ordinances allow certain uses to be permitted under specific conditions, which may require additional approvals or reviews.
  • Variances and Special Exceptions: Variances and special exceptions allow for deviations from zoning regulations under certain circumstances.

6.6 Laws Relevant to Non-Conforming Properties: Balancing Preservation and Development

The legal treatment of non-conforming properties can vary among different municipalities and states. Some jurisdictions may impose stricter restrictions on non-conforming use, while others may be more lenient. However, many laws aim to strike a balance between preserving existing non-conforming uses and encouraging the gradual transition towards conforming uses.


Factors in Legal Treatment:

  • Non-Conforming Use Status: Laws may differentiate between non-conforming uses that are legally established versus those that result from zoning violations.
  • Amortization Periods: Some jurisdictions may establish amortization periods during which non-conforming uses can continue before being required to comply with current zoning regulations.
  • Abandonment and Expansions: Laws may address the conditions under which non-conforming use is considered abandoned or when modifications may be allowed.

Zoning laws play a crucial role in shaping the development and use of land within a community. These laws are put in place to ensure and promote orderly growth, protect property values, and ensure that different areas are utilized appropriately.

In such cases, however, in a time when structured zoning is applicable across all jurisdictions, non-conforming properties stand as exceptions. In this section, we will explore the legal effects of property zoning law for non-conforming property, delving into the limitations it imposes, its impact on land development, and its role in maintaining community growth and stability.

7.1 Limiting the use of land

Property zoning laws primarily define the uses permitted in different zones, such as residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use.

By designating specific services for each area, zoning aims to maintain the character and function of different neighborhoods while preventing incompatible land uses from coexisting. In the context of non-conforming properties, zoning law limits land use to its pre-existing use as long as it is legally established.

  • Preserving Existing Use: Non-conforming properties are allowed to continue their current use, preserving the unique character they bring to the community.
  • Restrictions on Expansions: While existing use is protected, significant expansions or modifications to non-conforming properties may be subject to conditions to prevent further deviation from current zoning standards. Such requirements need to be presented to the legal authorities for approvals, which may or may not be granted based on various factors.
  • Balancing Individuality and Regulation: Non-conforming properties strike a delicate balance between celebrating individuality and creativity while adhering to the broader zoning framework

7.2 Regulating the development of land

Zoning laws also regulate land development, dictating the size, height, density, and setbacks of buildings within each zone. This aspect of zoning helps maintain the visual harmony and safety of a neighborhood while promoting efficient land utilization. In the context of non-conforming properties, these regulations may apply when property owners seek to modify or expand their existing structures.

  • Structural Modifications: Property owners seeking to make changes to a non-conforming property must adhere to current zoning regulations for building size, setbacks, and other development parameters.
  • Preserving Surrounding Aesthetics: Zoning laws aim to ensure that modifications to non-conforming properties do not disrupt the visual coherence of the neighborhood.
  • Community Interest: Decisions regarding modifications are often evaluated based on their impact on the surrounding community, striking a balance between property owner rights and the public good.

7.3 Protecting property values

Another key goal of zoning laws is protecting community property values. Zoning regulations help ensure that properties within the same zone share common characteristics, which can contribute to overall property value stability and equity.

  • Maintaining Consistency: Zoning laws help maintain a sense of consistency and predictability in the neighborhood, which can positively impact property values.
  • Balancing Non-Conforming Use and Equity: While non-conforming properties add diversity to the community, their impact on surrounding property values may be a consideration in zoning decisions.

7.4 Providing for the orderly growth of a community

Zoning laws are integral to ensuring a community’s orderly growth and development over time. By designating areas for specific uses and establishing development standards, zoning provides a framework for sustainable growth and long-term viability.

  • Encouraging Conforming Use Transition: Over time, zoning laws may encourage the gradual transition of non-conforming properties to conforming uses, aligning with the community’s long-term development goals.
  • Preserving Neighborhood Character: Zoning ensures that new development complements the existing neighborhood character, fostering a sense of identity and belonging.

8. What Are the Effects of a Non-Conforming Use Situation?

In a non-conforming use situation, the property’s legal status allows it to continue its existing use, even though it may not comply with current zoning regulations. This “grandfathered” status ensures that non-conforming properties can maintain their unique character, adding diversity and charm to the community.

9. Lawful Non-Conforming Uses: Grandfathered Property and Zoning Law

Lawful non-conforming uses refer to properties that are legally allowed to continue their existing use even though they do not conform to the current zoning laws. This status is often granted due to changes in zoning regulations over time, which may render specific properties non-conforming.

Navigating the Legal Landscape:

  • Legal Protection: Lawful non-conforming uses are protected by the “grandfather clause,” allowing them to remain exempt from current zoning regulations as long as they continue their existing service.
  • Preserving Property Rights: The lawful non-conforming use status ensures that property owners can maintain the unique use and character of their properties, keeping their property rights.

The concept of lawful non-conforming use, often referred to as the “grandfather clause,” ensures that these extraordinary properties can continue their existing use while navigating certain restrictions on modifications and expansions. As we embrace the complexities and diversities within zoning constraints, non-conforming properties add charm and character to our communities, enriching the tapestry of the places we call home.

While non-conforming properties deviate from the current zoning rules, they are allowed to continue their existing use under the concept of lawful non-conforming use under their “grandfathered” status.

Key Points to Consider:

  • Preserving Existing Use: Non-conforming properties are entitled to maintain their current use, embracing their unique character and purpose that may differ from the surrounding zoning designations.
  • Continued Legality: As long as the non-conforming use remains unchanged, it is considered a legal use of the property, protected by the “grandfather clause.”
  • Limitations on Modifications: While existing use is protected, significant modifications or expansions may be subject to certain restrictions or additional approvals to align with current zoning standards.

10.2 The Permissible Use: Navigating Non-Conforming Status

Permissible use of a non-conforming property refers to the activities or functions that are legally allowed to occur within the confines of its non-conforming status. The permissible use is determined by the property’s lawful nonconforming use status, which typically mirrors the original use established when the property was legally created.

Exploring Permissible Use Possibilities:

  • Residential Non-Conforming Use: If a property were legally established as a residential property, its permissible use would likely be residential. This means it can continue to serve as a residence, even if the surrounding area has since been rezoned for commercial or mixed-use purposes.
  • Commercial Non-Conforming Use: Similarly, if a property was legally established for commercial use, it can be run as a retail establishment, even if the surrounding zone usage has changed.

10.3 Expanding the Permissible Use: What’s Possible?

While non-conforming properties are generally restricted from significant modifications or expansions that would deviate further from current zoning standards, some flexibility exists in some instances. Property owners seeking to make minor alterations or improvements may be allowed to do so within the confines of their existing non-conforming use.

Examples of Minor Alterations:

  • Interior Improvements: Property owners may be permitted to make interior renovations or updates to enhance the property’s functionality without altering its external footprint. Basic updates to essential amenity infrastructure can be quickly done, such as electricity wiring, installation of a new appliance, etc.
  • Preservation Efforts: In some cases, historic non-conforming properties may be allowed to undergo restoration efforts to maintain their architectural integrity. This becomes necessary in case the building is at risk of being severely damaged due to a natural disaster or interior structural deterioration over time.
  • Accessory Structures: Property owners may be permitted to add minor accessory structures, such as sheds or garages if they do not significantly impact the property’s use or the surrounding area.

11. Navigating the Approval Process: Seeking Variances and Special Exceptions

For property owners seeking to make significant changes or expansions to a non-conforming property, the process may involve applying for variances or notable exceptions.

Variances are legal mechanisms that allow deviations from specific zoning regulations, while notable exceptions permit certain uses under particular conditions.

When to Consider Variances and Special Exceptions:

  • Significant Expansions: Property owners seeking to make substantial modifications or additions that exceed the permissible use may require a variance to proceed.
  • Mixed-Use Properties: If a property owner wishes to convert a non-conforming property into a mixed-use establishment, they may need to seek notable exceptions for the desired use.

11.1 Paperwork and process details

Paperwork and process details for seeking variance and special exceptions

The process of obtaining permits and approvals for non-conforming properties can be complex and time-consuming. Understanding your area’s specific requirements and procedures is essential before you begin the process.

Step 1: Determine permissible changes

The first step is to determine what changes are permissible under the existing non-conforming status of the property. This involves a thorough review of the property’s legal history, including when and how it became non-conforming. The local zoning code or land-use regulations will typically specify the types of changes that are allowed, as well as any limitations or restrictions.

Step 2: Apply for variances or notable exceptions

If you plan to make significant changes or expansions that deviate from current zoning regulations, you may need to apply for variances or notable exceptions from the local zoning board.

A variance is a permission granted by the zoning board that allows a property owner to deviate from specific zoning requirements due to unique circumstances related to the property. A notable exception, also known as a conditional use permit, is a specific use or activity allowed in a particular zoning district under certain conditions.

  • The application process for variances and notable exceptions can be lengthy and complex.
  • It typically includes various forms, supporting documents, site plans, architectural drawings, and justifications for the proposed changes or uses.
  • The application must comply with the specific procedures and requirements outlined in the local zoning code or land-use regulations.

Step 3: Submit applications and paperwork

Once the application is complete, it must be submitted to the local zoning board or planning department. The zoning board or planning department will review the application and determine whether it meets the requirements for a variance or notable exception. If the application is approved, the zoning board or planning department will issue a permit.

Step 4: Obtain a compliance certificate

In some cases, obtaining a compliance certificate from the local planning or zoning department may be necessary. This certificate confirms that the property complies with all applicable zoning regulations. It may involve inspecting the property to ensure it meets the criteria for non-conforming use status.

Step 5: Attend a public hearing

For variances and notable exceptions, public hearings are typically held as part of the approval process.

The stakeholders in this stage include the property owner, members of the community, and local government officials.

The zoning board or planning commission is responsible for conducting the public hearing and considering the input from the community.

Step 6: Await the decision

The zoning board or relevant authority will evaluate the application based on zoning regulations, public input, and potential impact on the community.

The decision may involve granting, denying, or approving the application with specific conditions to ensure the changes align with the community’s interests and zoning objectives. The local zoning code, land-use regulations, and any legal precedents make the decision.

Step 7: Implement approved changes

Once the application is approved, the property owner can proceed with the changes or use specified in the approval. It is essential to adhere to any conditions outlined in the authorization to maintain compliance with zoning laws.

Step 8: Maintain compliance

Regularly review and maintain compliance with zoning regulations to ensure the non-conforming status remains valid. Compliance with the law helps prevent zoning violations that could result in penalties or loss of non-conforming use status.

11.2 Stakeholders and officials involved

  • Property owner: The individual or entity that owns the non-conforming property is the primary stakeholder in the process.
  • Local zoning board: The zoning board or planning commission is responsible for reviewing applications, holding public hearings, and making decisions on variances and notable exceptions.
  • Community members: Community members provide input during public hearings to voice their concerns or support for the proposed changes.
  • Local government officials: Local government officials, including zoning administrators and planning department staff, are involved in processing applications and ensuring compliance with zoning laws.

11.3 Consulting with an attorney

It is essential to consult with an attorney or other qualified professional to discuss the specific requirements and procedures for obtaining permits and approvals for non-conforming properties in your area. An attorney can help you understand the process, prepare the necessary paperwork, and represent you at public hearings.


Non-conforming properties are unmistakably distinctive and creative in a world that often promotes uniformity. These unique living spaces come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the repurposed warehouses of yesteryear to the historically significant buildings that have stood the test of time.

To maintain their existing use while still complying with regulations, these properties often rely on the lawful non-conforming use designation. However, navigating the complex web of zoning laws and regulations is crucial, including zoning maps, variances, and spot zoning practices.

When dealing with non-conforming properties, legal considerations can be quite intricate and include factors such as permissible use, variances, and the often-overlooked community interest.

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