Homesteads have a rich history in the United States. In the pioneer days, homesteads were spread out throughout the western portion of the country, and in the rural areas of the eastern U.S. as well. People who lived on homesteads made their own clothes, grew their own food, and generally took care of themselves with the resources available to them from their properties.
Modern homesteads are similar their pioneering predecessors but very different in some ways. On the plus side, advances in technology (e.g. solar panels) have made homesteading a much more accessible and comfortable lifestyle. On the other end, certain laws and regulations may throw a wrench into homesteading plans if you don't do your research.
If you're interested in homesteading, understanding zoning laws in your area can help you find the right place to settle and build your homestead. Knowing the zoning laws in your area can help you live on a homestead while staying within the bounds of the law.
How Zoning Affects Homesteaders
Most communities use zoning laws to regulate the types of activities that occur on different property types in specific areas. Properties under residential zoning are intended to be used for living accommodations. Properties zoned for commercial may be used to produce goods or services that are sold to others.
Of course, zoning laws are rarely so simple. They're written by legal professionals, and tend to have complex language that many people find difficult to understand. If these laws are misunderstood from the outset, this could lead someone to buy a property with plans to homestead, only to find out later that they cannot do what they want legally.
Many communities prohibit or at least regulate livestock that can be kept outside in residential areas. There may be ordinances dictating the number of animals allowed per lot or acre. Some areas may prohibit or allow the sale of eggs or milk on the property. If one's homesteading plan includes owning cows, pigs, bees, etc, it would be prudent to know if these animals are allowed on a property (or the land they intend to buy), as well as what kinds of accommodations, if any, are required.
Contact Your Zoning Department More than Once
Reading zoning laws can leave most people feeling lost and confused. One of the ways to ensure that the property you want to purchase is zoned for homesteading is to contact your community's zoning department. Contact your zoning departmentámore than one time.
It's easy to get the wrong information, or to get the right information but to misunderstand it. Contacting the zoning departments more than once and speaking to more than one person is an effective way to ensure the information you've been given is accurate. The first time, call and ask your questions. Write down the answers. Then, contact someone else from the zoning department and ask them the same questions. Compare the answers.
Consider Working with Professionals
Buying a homestead is more complicated than buying other residential properties. Working with a lawyer or agent who has experience with the area you are looking at can help immensely. When seeking the help of a professional, ask them about their experience helping clients find suitable land for homesteading. Find out what they know about the local zoning laws, and what can be done to ensure that the property you wish to purchase will fit your needs.
When interviewing your real estate lawyer, ask them for references, and ask them what process they use to ensure that the property you purchase is legally viable for homesteading. Ask about their rate, as well. While rate is not everything, you will be expected to pay your lawyer at some point, so keep this in mind while deciding which professional is right for you.
Sometimes homestead properties will go up for dispute. Different laws can be interpreted in different ways. If the legality or validity of your homestead property should ever go up for debate, you'll want to have proper documentation to show that you did your due diligence when making your property purchase.
Keep all documentation relating to your homestead and the purchase of your homestead. Should a dispute ever arise, you may need to consult with your lawyer again. Having documentation on hand will make the job easier.
Zoning Laws Change
Zoning can change over time. The frequency and significance of these changes will vary widely from county to county. Having a finger on the pulse of local government decisions can help potential homesteaders understand what areas might be best suited to their needs.
On the other side of things, there are cases in which properties are given permission to change their zoning or request a special use permit/variance. How this is done will vary based on local laws and procedures, so it is advised to have a lawyer help with this.
'Measure Twice, Cut Once'
Putting in some work up front and figuring out what you can or cannot do with a property or parcel of land can save many headaches down the line. If you dream of homesteading, start making a plan now.
Do you want goats? Cows? Chickens? Do you want to sell eggs from your house? Would you like to install a wind turbine on your land? Knowing what you specifically would like to do with your homestead will help you research and find the perfect area to settle.
Ryan Tollefsen is the founder and team leader of Unity Home Group. As an avid supporter of sustainable living, he aims to help homesteaders navigate some of the lesser-known challenges of finding the right place to build roots for their homestead in his guide to assessing off-grid land. Read all of Ryan’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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