What to Look for When Buying a Home

Prospective purchasers can take any of these simple steps to protect themselves from zoning-related problems.

• Ask the sellers to add a clause to the sales agreement that guarantees they obtained the necessary permits before making any improvements to the property — and that they are responsible for any future fines having to do with these improvements.

• Hire a lawyer to investigate all permissible uses of the property and the legality of any specific changes you have in mind. This can cost around $500, but if you're planning to keep reptiles, say, or build a separate apartment over the garage, at least you?ll know ahead of time whether you're allowed to.

• Conduct your own search. At the town's building department and zoning office, you can examine prior construction permits and permissible uses of the property. One caveat, though: You can't always trust what town officials tell you. And the fact that they may have given you incorrect information is no defense should you get in trouble with the zoning commission. Make sure that you are receiving the most up-to-date information — not all towns are diligent about updating the zoning codebook. New amendments may be sitting in an inbox somewhere waiting to be filed. There is no foolproof way to protect against lackadaisical filing clerks. But at the very least, check the date on the map and codebook and if they are more than a year old, call a member of the zoning commission to see if there have been any recent revisions.
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