The Problem with “Potential”

You may not be zoned for every change you envision

If you’re obsessed with the home renovation shows that seem to be on every channel these days, you might be susceptible to what we call, “starry-eye-itis.” It’s an affliction that overcomes those of us who pride ourselves on being able to see potential in any property.  Looking past ugly wallpaper or shag carpet is one thing, but it’s another thing to purchase a property based only on dreamy visions of rooftop decks, additional bathrooms, or expanses of vineyards stretching off into the distance.

Don’t get us wrong – visions are wonderful. We’re all for them. But before you sign the closing documents, you should either know your zoning and permitting requirements or be willing to live without seeing those visions through to reality.

For example, let’s say water views are at the top of your must-have list. But then you buy a home two blocks back from the beach with no view to speak of. So what? you think. It’s under budget. We’ll add a third story rooftop deck and have sunset-ocean-view cocktails every Friday night.

And you buy the house – starry-eyed and happy.

But then the contractor informs you that area zoning laws include height restrictions that crush your third-story-rooftop-view dreams. If you don’t love everything else about the house, you might have just made a big, expensive mistake.

See what we mean?

Before you purchase a property with potential, be sure to follow these steps:

1)   Look around.  If the homes in the surrounding area show evidence of changes similar to those you want to make, that should give you some idea of whether your plans will fly.  If no one in the neighborhood has a third story, there might be a reason. Don’t make assumptions, though. Plenty of people make changes without permits. The problem is that you can’t use unpermitted changes for resale value, and you could be asked to undo them, no matter how much money you’ve invested. Studying what the neighbors have done is a good place to start, but don’t stop there.

2)   Check with the city.  You can use the Internet to do a “(Your City) zoning” search.  The links will lead you to FAQ pages and phone numbers to inquire about your specific property.

3)   Call on experts. Depending on your needs, you should be able to discuss feasibility with architects, contractors, agricultural inspectors, and other experts. The best of them will not only tell you if your ideas are doable, but also provide you with options you hadn’t considered.

We’ll leave you with an example with a happy ending.

A friend of ours finally found a home after looking at 60-some houses. This one sat on five acres and fit all her requirements for space, style, and seclusion. When she saw that the neighbors on the next lot over had a vineyard, she realized that if she purchased this home, she might be able to fulfill her lifelong dream of one day growing grapes of her own. It wasn’t something she planned to do right away, but it was a major selling point, and she wanted to verify that it would be possible.

She hired an agricultural inspector to test the soil, and she inquired about zoning and permitting through the city. In the end, she got yesses all around and was able to purchase the house knowing that when she was ready she could start her own vineyard. But she also got the joy of living in a home she loved even if the grapes never happened.

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Elizabeth Salaam
Along with her work as Senior Contributing Writer for Girl's Guide, Elizabeth Salaam writes for the San Diego Reader. Her work has also been published in Elle Magazine. | Most inspired by: Contradictions. | Favorite room in my home: The Master suite. The windows have views for days! | Best design idea I may never do: Adorn my enclosed toilet room with library book wallpaper and a chandelier. | Will never: Bungee jump. | Have always been: Rebellious. | Dying to: Live in a Paris flat with herringbone wood floors.
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