Zoning Laws: Building a Home Studio or Workshop

Check local zoning laws, ordinances, building codes, and covenants before building a home studio or workshop on your property.

Your separate structure will likely fall under residential zoning laws, not business, if it's meant for just you, a computer, and the occasional client dropping by. Image: www.DecoratedShed.com

It’s not much fun being stuck in a windowless basement or garage to pursue your project passions. Wouldn’t it be sweet to have a spacious studio or workshop, fully equipped and with windows in all the right places, just steps away from your house? For many homeowners it’s a dream that can be realized, if local zoning laws, ordinances, and building codes permit. Here’s what you need to know if you want to add a hobby studio or workshop to your property.

Typical zoning ordinances

Zoning ordinances vary by locale, but in general they exist to keep your new structure from adversely affecting quality of life and real estate values in your neighborhood. Zoning ordinances affecting a backyard structure boil down to these essentials:

  • Setbacks are the required buffers (typically about 12 feet) between your structure and your neighbors’ lot lines. They also specify at least 20 feet of front yard and 25 feet of backyard.
  • Lot coverage (sometimes referred to as Lot Coverage Ratio or LCR) is the allowable percentage of your lot occupied by structures and paving. Most municipalities want at least half the lot to be open space. Larger lots face more severe restrictions to avoid the look of a high-density compound. In Arlington, Va., for example, a half-acre lot is restricted to an LCR of only 33%.
  • Easements protect access pathways for utilities, but they may also include public access to a beach or a neighbor’s right to share your driveway.

Wanda Edwards, a practicing structural engineer and Director of Building Code Development for the Institute for Business & Home Safety, recommends tackling potential zoning problems early. “Before you begin with any design, sit down with the local zoning official,” she advises. “Discuss what you are going to do and be sure that what you are planning will not violate any zoning ordinances.”

Codes and restrictions

Building codes that govern the construction of new homes and remodeling projects apply to backyard structures as well. The codes ensure that your building won’t collapse under snow load, sink into the ground because of an inadequate footing, or burst into flame due to an electrical fault.

“Their purpose is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” says Edwards.

Codes vary according to locale, mainly because regional differences (low temperatures, hurricanes, earthquakes) put different demands on a building. Codes also reflect local preferences for certain types of materials. For example, some areas allow flexible plastic piping for water lines, some insist on copper pipe.

Other types restrictions may affect placing a separate studio or workshop on your property. “It’s not just zoning and codes that you need to take into consideration,” Edwards points out. “Subdivisions or neighborhoods might have restricted covenants as well.”

Also known as Deed Restrictions, these rules will have been filed with your deed. They can even stretch to aesthetic concerns. “A lot of times there is an architectural board,” notes Edwards. “They want to see what it’s going to look like.” For example, the restrictions may dictate the type and color of materials, such as siding and roofing.

Obtaining a building permit (and what happens if you don’t)

Check with your city or county building department for information about obtaining a permit for your studio or workshop. Often, they will have essential information on their web site, along with downloadable application forms.

Permit costs vary. Some begin with a modest fee of $50 or so for the first $1,000 of valuation, and then an additional $7 per $1,000 of valuation. Others are based on square footage. Figured either way, the fee for a 400 sq. ft. structure costing $33,000 to construct averages about $275.

If your structure requires something unusual, such as foundation piers to cope with a steep slope, you may need your plans reviewed and approved by a structural engineer before you can obtain a permit. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for the services of a structural engineer.

After obtaining a permit, your project will be reviewed on-site by a building inspector. The inspector checks critical items, such as the foundation, framing, wiring, and plumbing, to make sure they comply with building codes. In addition, many municipalities check insulation and energy conservation measures. When signing off on completed work, the inspector will list items to be corrected before the next inspection.

Despite the fairly modest fee, some homeowners skip taking out a permit. The risk is hardly worth it. If you later put your house on the market and the prospective owner spots something that’s not to code, you may be required to make a repair that will cost much more than if the job had been done correctly from the start.

If the wiring and plumbing were not inspected, you may have to provide a clear look by pulling out obstructing drywall. Or worse. “An inspector will try to work with you, but he has the authority to make you tear down the structure,” warns Edwards.

Property assessments, taxes, and insurance

When you take out a building permit, your tax assessor is cued to your property’s increased value. Typically, the tax increase is a set amount multiplied by the square footage of your new studio or workshop, allowing you to estimate your tax increase in advance.

Your building as a place of business

If your business is simply you, a computer, and an occasional client dropping by, your separate structure will likely fall under residential—not business—zoning laws. However, if you have several employees and a stream of customers, you may run afoul of zoning laws that restrict commerce in residential areas. Your option is to apply for a variance that grants you exemption from the laws based on your circumstances.

Should zoning laws permit you to use your new studio or workshop as a place of business, brace yourself for some demanding code requirements. Now that you’re inviting the public in, expect to provide things like more than one exit, a fire lane, restroom facilities, and adequate parking.

Potential payback

Although you may be building the ceramics studio or furniture-making shop of your dreams, it probably won’t add appreciable value to your property.

“We struggle with those outbuildings from an appraisal standpoint,” says Bryan Flaherty, an appraiser in Missoula, Mont. “The classic example is somebody who likes to rebuild cars and they build a separate shop on their property in a residential zone. They’ll end up investing $25,000 to $50,000 in that shop building.”

They typically won’t get their investment back, says Flaherty. “People buy the house first as a place to live. The incidental buildings are secondary. Normally they’ll contribute less than the cost value.”