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How to get a variance for a home business

Zoning restricts the purpose for which a property can be used. Grouping properties by their use helps the government protect property values and makes a community more functional -- but zoning restrictions can be a tremendous hurdle to overcome if you're trying to start a small business. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

-- Before you buy, check the current zoning regulations to see if they are compatible with the type of business you want to operate.

For example, if you want to start a bed and breakfast in a quaint Victorian neighborhood, you might be able to find one with mixed-use zoning that allows both commercial and residential buildings. However, you need to be sure that the specific rules are a fit for the type of business you want to operate.

-- If you aren't able to find a location that matches your exact needs, you may be able to convince a city to give you a variance. This is a special permit that allows the owner to use a property in a way not normally permitted under the zoning requirements.

For example, if you find a perfect neighborhood, but it's zoned only for residential use, you may be able to get a variance that allows you to operate your bed and breakfast if you can convince the zoning board that it is in the community's best interest and won't harm other property values.

-- If you find an existing business that has permission for a "non-conforming use" that you'd like to buy -- be careful. Generally, those are granted to businesses that were already in operation when the zoning changed. For example, an existing bed and breakfast might have been grandfathered in to allow it to continue operating after the land surrounding it was developed into residential properties.

The problem with buying a property like that is that the consent for the non-conforming use might not transfer when ownership of the property transfers. You'll need to research the specifics of the situation carefully before you purchase.

A real estate agent can be of tremendous help when dealing with zoning issues.

Source: FindLaw, "Zoning Changes, Variances, and More," accessed March 14, 2017

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