Before you can start designing your dream home you need to do some investigation. Did you know that your use of your land may be subject to specific restrictions as defined in the property deed, by the local zoning laws or by other State or Federal restrictions? Most people don't. Learning about these restrictions at an early stage in the design process will save a lot of frustration. No one in construction likes surprises at the last minute.

The Deed

The paperwork that gives you ownership of your property sometimes has restrictions on what you can and cannot do. Does your land have easements from utility companies or other public or private parties? Does your land description contain conditions, covenants and restrictions (CC&R's)? CC&R's may limit your use of the property or may limit your expansion potential. Read your deed carefully for any restrictions that may affect your project.


Your city or county ordinances have a section that divides your community into specific "zoned" areas. These zoning districts limit the use of your property as well and set out specific construction controls. Setbacks (such as minimum front, rear and side yard sizes), allowable building height, maximum floor area, covered parking requirements, etc. are usually found in the zoning ordinance. Local jurisdictions are not consistent in any of these regulations. It is important that you research your specific property zoning requirements by contacting your local planning department early in the design process.

Other Gotcha's

There are many Federal, State and local laws that may have an impact on your project. It is very important to determine if any of the following apply to your site:

  1. Flood Zones - Are you in a flood zone? Can you build in a flood zone? What are the excavation and fill restrictions in this zone?
  2. Special soil (foundation) conditions - Is the soil expansive? Is the soil subject to sliding when wet?
  3. Geological hazard area - Are you located in an area of high seismicity?
  4. Hazardous fire area - Properties located west of highway 280 require Class A or Class B roofs.
  5. Historic preservation - Are you in a historic preservation area? If so, local ordinances may limit what you can do to the exterior of your structure.
  6. Architectural Review - Is your design subject to approval/rejection by an Architectural Review Board? If so, you should obtain a copy of their published guidelines before you put a lot of work into your design.
  7. Noise Ordinance (construction hours) - Most of these are common sense, but it never hurts to ask for a copy of the noise ordinance. In Palo Alto, the construction related noise level at the property line may not exceed 110 dBa. No piece of construction equipment can exceed 110 dBa at a distance of 25 feet from the equipment. As a common courtesy, radio volumes shall be be kept at a level that does not disturb the neighbors.
  8. Construction Hours -
    8 AM to 6 PM Monday thru Friday
    9 AM to 6 PM Saturdays
    10 AM to 6 PM Sundays & Holidays
  9. Tree protection - Trees of a certain diameter may require special permits for their removal.
  10. School fees (new floor area) - Partial funding for local schools sometimes comes via a tax on newly built floor area. Ask if this tax applies to your project and the tax rate.
  11. Fire sprinklers - Again, if the municipality deems your area to be in a high-danger fire zone, they may require you to install sprinklers to protect the framing of your structure. In Palo Alto, houses built to the west of highway 280 require sprinkler systems.

Contact your local building and planning departments and ask if any of these or other local restrictions apply to your project.

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