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What Is Variance in Real Estate: 6 FAQs About Zoning

If you're thinking of selling a house with a land variance, you may wonder how it could impact the transaction. Here are answers to six of the most commonly asked questions about zoning variances.

If you're thinking of selling a house with a land variance, you may wonder how it could impact the transaction. Here are answers to six of the most commonly asked questions about zoning variances.

Zoning laws dictate what can be built and where in a city or town. They may apply to issues like building height, signage, or billboards. For homeowners, particularly those living in older homes, common variances relate to property setbacks and fence heights.

When you’re getting ready to list your house on the market, you may have concerns about an existing variance. Or your realtor may have asked you if your property has any variances and you don’t know the answer. If you need to find out more about land variances, here are six basic facts.

What does land variance mean?

A land variance involves using or developing the property in a way that deviates from the municipality’s rules. If a property has a land variance the town granted the owner permission to use their land in a way that isn’t normally permitted. It can be an exception to a zoning ordinance (like a business in an area zoned residential), a building code, or a municipal code.


A setback variance allows a homeowner to build closer to the property line or alley than allowed by the local building codes. Variances can also apply to a building or fence’s height.

How do you find the variance of a property?

To obtain a variance, a landowner must file a request or written application with the zoning board. This request, and whether or not it was granted, will be on file with the local zoning board or at the county office. This is public information and can be found if you investigate a home’s history.

When you’re selling a property, your realtor will likely notice if your garage looks like it’s built too close to the property line, or other issues, so you can check on any old variances you didn’t know about. They’ll know where to find information on zoning variances in your city.

Do zoning variances expire?

Planning and zoning officials understand that, once a variance has been granted, it’s difficult to reverse. The decisions are permanent and transfer with the land.

However, there can be language in an ordinance that states the approved variance expires within a period of time. Sometimes it just expires if not acted upon, i.e., the owner hasn’t built the fence yet.

If you’re selling a property which has a land variance, supply a copy of the ordinance with the seller’s disclosures. There are local differences in application and expiration, so it’s a good idea to loop your realtor in and rely on their expertise to interpret the variance.

Do variances run with the land?

As a generally accepted legal principle, zoning variances run with the land. That means that they’re unaffected when you sell your house.

However, some variances can be limited for 5 or 10 years, and when they expire, the new owner would have to obtain a new variance. If your variance will expire within a few years after the sale, it could concern potential buyers. Talk with your realtor about how best to present this information to reassure buyers.

What is a variance letter?

A homeowner writes a variance letter in support of their application. It states the reasons they’re requesting a variance and their intent if approved. Your intent could be the plan to tear down an old fence and replace it or you could plan on adding an addition.

What happens at a zoning hearing?

After you’ve applied for a zoning variance, the zoning board will notify your neighbors and others who could be affected by your request. They’ll be given time to respond with any concerns, either in writing or at a hearing.

The zoning board conducts the hearing, and you must present any evidence to support your application. Other property owners will have the chance to present counter-arguments to your appeal. They may have concerns about privacy issues and property values.

After the zoning board has heard both sides of the argument, they’ll vote. Even if no neighbors contest your request, don’t assume it’ll be approved. Zoning boards also consider preserving the neighborhood’s appeal, traffic, and noise.

Clever Partner Agents can help sellers who have questions about zoning variances. They’re top-rated agents in your local area who have in-depth knowledge of local building codes and know where to find information. To find out more, reach out to Clever today and get connected with a Partner Agent.


Andrew Schmeerbauch

Andrew Schmeerbauch is the Director of Marketing at Clever Real Estate, the free online service that connects you top agents to save on commission. His focus is educating home buyers and sellers on navigating the complex world of real estate with confidence and ease. Andrew has worked on projects for the United Nations and USC and has a particular passion for investing and finance. Andrew's writing has been featured in Mashvisor, L&T, Ideal REI, and Rentometer.

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