What a Zoning Variance Is and How to Get One

It's important to know if your home-based business need a zoning variance.
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Have you ever driven down a street in a city and seen different types of buildings and uses for buildings in the same street? For example, there is a lovely Victorian home next to a pizza restaurant. This variation in different types of buildings in an area is not common because most localities have zoning restrictions.

Zoning restrictions are put in place by cities to keep property values high. The value of that Victorian home is much higher, for example, if it's next to similar homes instead of a pizza restaurant. An example of an atypical city is Houston, which has no zoning variances. Houston controls building types with deed restrictions and building permits.

Why You Need One

When you find a location for your business—whether to build, to buy or to lease, you may have been told that you need a zoning variance because your type of business is different from the specified zoning use for that area. 

For example, you may want to operate a construction business in an area that is zoned for retail stores. In this case, you may need to go to the local planning or zoning board and request a variance (exception) to the current zoning type before you open your business.

A variance is an exception to a zoning restriction that allows the use of the land outside the requirements of the zoning for that area. Variances can be given by a locality for businesses who present valid reasons for the variance and who can show that the variance will not lessen property values or interfere with the use of the property by current residents. In some cases, you may have to go before the city council or municipal government and plead your case.​

Zoning Permits and Variances

A zoning permit is similar to a variance. Zoning permits allow the use of a property for a purpose other than designated by the property's zoning, as long as the business use doesn't adversely affect the neighborhood. A zoning permit or variance may be needed in a number of situations that may change the zoning classification of the property, such as the following:

  • if you are engaged in the construction or alteration of a building that may change its classification;
  • if you intend to change the use of an existing building to a different zoning classification;
  • if you want to build a structure on vacant land;
  • if you want to change the use of land to a different zoning type; or
  • if you make any change in a nonconforming use, i.e., you make a change to a structure that had previously been "grandfathered" from complying with current zoning requirements.

A competent commercial real estate agent, building contractor, or leasing consultant can help guide you through the process of obtaining a zoning permit or variance. The zoning or planning board must give you the permit or variance before you can begin construction or use the building for business purposes.

Home-Based Businesses

If you are planning to start a home-based business in a residential area, you may have to get a zoning variance, depending on the type of home business you are conducting. You may also have to get the permission of neighbors before you can operate your business. 

For example, a couple wants to set up a bed and breakfast in that lovely Victorian home. They have customers coming to their home, but only one at a time. They must apply to the city to get a variance since the house is zoned residential. They must poll the neighbors and get their permission, then take the permissions to the city zoning board for approval.

The process may be different in your city or town. Check with your locality and let it know you plan to start a home business and abide by the requirements. Getting a variance can be a time-consuming and expensive process, and variances are often denied. Before you sign a sales contract or lease agreement on a business location, make sure you can get the variance you need.