JAMES AND MORRIS CAREY \ On the House Be sure to carefully plan improvements

There are three really important rules to remember when it comes to planning a home improvement: 1. Planning, 2. Planning, and 3. More Planning.
And when it comes to changes to the exterior of your home (or where its size will increase in area or height) the first public agency you should visit is your local -- you got it -- "Planning Department."
A building permit is generally assumed to be something that has to do with plumbing, mechanical or electrical work -- and that is true to a great extent. However, before there can be an approval on how something will be built, there must first be a determination as to whether it is allowed -- or not -- and that's the domain of the planning department.
Discovering rules
Recently, we applied to a planning department in our area in an attempt to acquire approval to build a second-story room addition. The planning official informed us that we had to keep the height of the building low -- below 25 feet -- and that it didn't make any difference how much land was covered by the house. In other words, the planners in that town don't mind expansion as long as it is close to the ground.
In another part of the same county (different city), something a little different occurred only a few days later. We discovered that this particular planning department had a far more generous height limit (35 feet), but they are very stingy when it comes to the amount of living space that can be placed on a given lot -- less than one-fourth of the total lot can be used for building, and the rest must remain landscape area.
Our point is that every community has different rules. And the rules in a given community can change radically from neighborhood to neighborhood. Sometimes a person only two blocks away is allowed to do something that you can't. So, whatever you do, don't make plans based on something your neighbor recently did until you find out for sure what the rules are in the "zone" where your house is located.
Basic rules
The interesting thing about planning departments is that all municipalities follow the same basic set of rules. However, the rules themselves, and how they are applied or measured, vary radically from planning department to planning department. In order to have some idea of what questions to ask as you plan your project, we offer examples of the three most common rules:
USetbacks: No construction can encroach upon front, rear and side yard setbacks. That is, there must be a minimum clearance between your home and your property line at all four sides. These "setback requirements" are always different. A 20-foot minimum clearance between the front of the house and the front property line is very common in our neck of the woods. However, 25- and 30-foot front setbacks also are common. A setback becomes extremely important when you are planning to add on to your home and there is the possibility that the addition will encroach into the setback area.
UHeight limits: No construction can be built higher than the maximum height requirement. As you may have noted earlier in this article, the height restrictions in this area in only two instances range from 25 to 35 feet. These first two rules can help you to decide whether to build up or out.
ULot coverage: No construction can occur that exceeds existing lot coverage requirements. Living space is restricted to a certain percentage of lot size, basically a ratio of living space to lot area. Some communities restrict only the amount of area in contact with the ground. Others measure the ratio as all living space, garage area and covered porches. Others measure only living space within the walls. The finite differences can often make or break a project, so study the rules carefully.
The nice thing about most planning departments is that their rules are usually available in printed form and are free for the asking. Be sure to ask for your copy early on in your planning phase.
XFor more home improvement tips and information, visit our Web site at www.onthehouse.com.

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