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Understanding Zoning Laws

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If you’ve ever been in the suburbs and wondered why there are no shops or restaurants in the neighborhood, it’s probably because zoning laws won’t allow it. 

If you’re considering investing in real estate, you’ll want to know which zoning laws apply because zoning laws can limit what you can do with a property. Maybe you want to run a yoga studio out of your basement, but can’t because zoning laws restrict it. Maybe you’re thinking about buying a home to rent out the back half while you live in the front half. Again, your ability to do that would depend on the area’s zoning laws.

We’ll cover the ins and outs of zoning laws, including different types of zoning, zoning regulations and more. 

What Is a Zoning Law?

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Zoning laws regulate how a property can and cannot legally be used. They exist as a planning tool to help develop safe and productive communities. 

For instance, you probably wouldn’t want an oil refinery as your neighbor. Well, because zoning laws typically don’t allow refineries (industrial zoning) to be built next to homes (residential zoning), that will likely never be an issue for you.

Zoning laws (also known as land use laws) are important for a property owner because, besides letting you know how to use your property, they can affect the value of your property.

How Do Zoning Laws Work?

Zoning laws work like any other laws. They’re enacted, enforced and, if broken, punishable by law. If you fail to comply with zoning laws, your local government can fine you or put a lien on your property.

Usually, zoning laws are enacted by local governments, such as municipal or county governments. They may also be enacted by a local government’s planning commission as part of a comprehensive plan. Zoning laws can also be enacted at the state level, and, if necessary, the federal government can intervene.

Zoning districts

All the properties in a zoning district are subject to the same zoning laws and zoning regulations. A zoning district can include a residential neighborhood, a business district or a historic district. Everyone who owns property in the district must follow its zoning laws.

If you live in a condominium, a cooperative or in a community that’s part of a homeowners association, you may need to follow additional rules besides the zoning laws in your district. These additional rules also control what you can do with your property. 

If your property is governed by a homeowners association board or a condo or co-op board, you’ll have to comply with the regulations of the board and the zoning district. 

What Are Types of Zoning?

There are several different zoning types. Each zoning type has its own rules and zoning regulations. Unlike federal laws, zoning laws can vary from town to town. Therefore, it’s important to understand general types of zoning and how your local government defines each type.


Residential zoning is an area reserved for structures people live in, which means you can’t turn your home into a restaurant or an office.

Because people live in a variety of dwellings, residential zoning includes a variety of housing, including: 

  • Detached single-family homes
  • Semi-detached and attached single-family homes (twin homes and row homes or townhomes)
  • Multifamily residential (condominiums and co-ops)
  • Land to build a residential home


If you want to open up a restaurant, commercial zoning will be your best bet. Commercial zoning is used primarily for businesses, like retail stores and office buildings. Commercial zoning laws and regulations can restrict the type of business and the size and placement of the building(s).


Industrial zoning is used for industrial manufacturing, packaging and warehousing. Industrial zoning can also include power plants and recycling plants. Industrial zoning usually isn’t allowed near residential neighborhoods due to the noise level and potential health hazards of industrial materials or waste.


Historic zoning can apply to a single property or an entire district. Typically, the goal of historic zoning is to preserve a property’s historic elements or appearance. 


Agricultural zoning protects land for farm use and discourages nonfarming development. While agricultural zoning may allow for a home to be built on a piece of land, it will likely limit the number of non-farm structures.

What Are the Effects of Zoning?

The effects of zoning are important in determining the functionality, look and feel of a city or town. Zoning helps create safe spaces and housing for people to enjoy while seeking to provide convenient access to food, jobs, health care, entertainment and other amenities.

Consequences of poorly planned zoning

Sometimes zoning can have unintended consequences that negatively impact cities and towns.  The consequences of poorly planned zoning can be severe, with lasting effects on residents and visitors. Without zoning, the nearest park or supermarket could be hours away, or you might find yourself living next to a chemical plant.

Zoning laws may allow real estate developers to build high-rises, but these skyscrapers can bring unwanted noise, traffic and air pollution.

Another consequence of poorly planned zoning is that it can discourage real estate development. If an area is zoned for one type of land use that isn’t necessarily its best use, a real estate investor may not bother buying and developing that property. 

Consequences of no zoning laws

In rare cases, there are no official zoning laws or regulations in place. This can lead to a hodgepodge of property types in close proximity to one another. Residential properties may be sandwiched between factories and office buildings. 

Another result of a lack of zoning laws or improper zoning can be an inadequate supply of residences and reduced access to jobs, necessities and amenities.

FAQs for Zoning

Most of us don’t think twice about zoning laws. But on those occasions when we do, certain questions may crop up. Here are answers to a few FAQs to help you better understand zoning laws.

Who controls zoning?

Zoning laws will depend on where you live. Usually, your local government (like your city, county or town) will enact and control zoning laws. 

Can zoning laws stop me from building on my property?

Yes. Zoning laws can stop you from building on your land or, at the very least, limit how and what you can build.

How can you get zoning changed?

Zoning laws may be strict, but they’re not always set in stone. To get the zoning changed on a property, you typically obtain a variance. Local governments control variances, so your first stop should be your local government’s website. 

You might also want to consult with an attorney to get a variance. The process will probably include appealing to a zoning hearing board and explaining why you want a variance.

Get in the Zone

Zoning laws are an important consideration when buying property since they govern how a property can be used.  

Every city and town can set its zoning laws – and sometimes those laws can change. In other cases, you can request to use a property for a different purpose by applying for a variance. 

The best resources for more information on zoning laws will be your local government office or an attorney.

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The Short Version

  • Zoning laws regulate how a property can and can’t be used
  • Zoning is typically governed by a municipality – a city, a county, a town or a township government
  • The goal of zoning laws is to help create a safe and productive place for people to live and access necessities and amenities
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