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What Is a Variance?

Zoning laws are local regulations that restrict how real estate can be used. For example, they may only permit houses in some areas and businesses in others. Zoning rules may regulate how large houses may be and how far they must be set back from the road.

Zoning rules are intended to create and maintain cities and towns where residents and businesses can avoid inconveniences, such as noise, that could arise if different types of properties were located in the same neighborhoods. Zoning laws can also protect property values.

What Can You Do If You Want to Make Changes to Your Property That Would Violate Zoning Laws?
If you want to build an addition or make another change to your house, you may discover that the work you want to do would violate the zoning rules in your city or town. If that’s the case, you can request a variance, or permission to violate a zoning rule for a specific reason. 

If you don’t request a variance and simply go ahead with the project, you may have to pay a fine for violating zoning rules. You may even be forced to stop work in progress or tear down your addition. If you apply for a variance and your request is approved, you won’t have to worry about potential penalties.

How Can You Apply for a Variance?
Procedures for requesting variances differ from one municipality to another. In some cases, the process is straightforward, and in others, it’s more complex. 

In most cases, either you or your attorney will have to draft a letter explaining which zoning rule you want to deviate from and why. The letter should outline the specific changes you want to make to your property, how your proposal differs from local zoning requirements and why a variance is necessary to complete the project as planned.

The local government will notify your neighbors of your request since a variance could affect them. A hearing will be held where you can explain your proposal in more detail and where others who may be affected by a variance will have an opportunity to voice their objections. The zoning board will consider that information, plus other factors, such as potential effects on traffic, noise and property values. 

After the zoning authority makes a decision, you will be notified. If your request is denied, you will usually have an opportunity to file an appeal.  

What Will Happen if Your Request for a Variance Is Approved?
If you’re granted a variance, you may have a limited amount of time to act. If your circumstances change or you can’t get funding, you can decide not to go ahead with the project. 

If you do make changes to your house in accordance with the variance, the permission to deviate from the zoning regulations will be attached to the property. That means that if you sell your home, a future owner won’t have to worry about being fined for violating zoning rules. 

7 Questions to Ask a Potential Contractor

When it comes to renovating your home, be it a kitchen remodel or a bathroom overhaul, you want to be sure you hire the right professional for the job. This is the person you are depending on to tear down your walls and spend your dollars wisely. Avoid a renovation nightmare by researching a few different contractors and setting up an interview with each of them. Here are seven interview questions to ask a potential contractor to ensure you hire the right pro!

1. Are you licensed, bonded and insured?
Most states require contractors and their employees to take and pass an exam, as well as attend annual education courses to maintain their license. If they are insured, so are their employees. This is vital when choosing a contractor, because if they are not insured and someone gets injured on your property, you will be liable and they can sue. Bonds, such as a surety bond, will ensure that if they go out of business mid-renovation or they do not finish the job for another reason, you are not liable for the additional costs to fix the job or pay their bill. 

2. What is the cost breakdown?
Never settle for a general or overall price estimate. Asking for an itemized cost breakdown is a vital step in the interview process. This way, you can see what they are charging you for and decide on any changes before they start. Oftentimes, there are many hidden fees that a homeowner may never know about. With a cost breakdown, you can discuss your options, update plans and even consider more cost-effective materials for your project.

3. What is the anticipated timeline for this project?
After discussing the cost, you want to understand how much time your project will take. Of course, you will likely not be offered a set finish date, as weather and other incidents may change things. Remember that delays are common and unforeseen circumstances may end up changing the completion date. Work closely with the contractor to set an anticipated start and end date, and if you need the work finished by a specific date, be sure to mention this now rather than later. 

4. How long have you worked in this area?
In order to build a good reputation in a city or community, contractors must perform at a high-quality standard. Understanding how long they have been in business and how long their employees have been working with them will give you a better idea of how the finished product will look. If they have experience working in your area before, they will have a better understanding of permit regulations and any possible issues in your area, such as piping and electrical work, that you may not be privy to. 

5. Can you share references from past customers?
Previous customers are your best source of information on how well a contractor performed. In addition to doing your own research and reading online reviews, ask them to share a few past customers for you to speak with. When you do reach out, ask questions such as, “Were deadlines and expectations met?” and “What were your best and worst experiences working with this contractor?” This will help you get a better understanding of the contractor’s communication skills, as well as the quality of work you are paying them for.

6. Will you obtain the correct permits?
Permits are almost always required for professional remodeling jobs. Make sure that your potential contractor understands the rules and guidelines for permits in your area, and that they will help to schedule a visit from an inspector. Once a building inspector reviews the project and approves it, your contractor will be issued a permit to start the work. Remember to ask for copies of any and all permits for your records. If a contractor tells you they do not need a permit, do not hire them!

7. Can we put everything in writing?
In addition to collecting copies of the required permits, you want to ensure everything is put in writing. Every detail should be included in a contract, such as payment schedules, cost breakdown, timetables, materials purchased and other essential information. Before you decide on a contractor, be sure contracts are complete and signed before any work is started. Do not trust a contractor who refuses to put things in writing or tries to talk you out of a contract.

Moving Up: How to Know When to Upgrade to a Bigger Home

If you have always wanted to live in a bigger home, then you may be wondering when the right time is for you to move. Bigger homes are more expensive and require more maintenance. However, you may be at a point in your life financially where you’re ready for a bigger place. Here are several signs that indicate it’s time for you to move into a bigger home:

Clean home with healthy front yard during late spring season

Your Family Is Growing
Your current home may not fit your needs if your family is growing. If you’re expecting another child, then you will need a home with extra rooms. You’ll also need a home with extra storage space and bathrooms. This can be a very common reason why people seek to upgrade their homes. By checking in your area, you can start to plan your budget even before the birth of your child and make sure that an upgrade is right for you.
You Have the Money To
Many people move into a smaller home because that is all that they can afford. However, if you can afford to move into a bigger space, now may be the time to do it. If you have saved up a significant amount of money or are earning more money than you used to, you can likely handle the financial responsibility of buying a larger home.
When considering this type of move, make sure to look in a nicer area, such as one with better schools and other community opportunities.
You’re Working From Home
More people are working from home these days, and one of the keys to successfully working at home is to have the right space. That’s why you may need a larger home. Most small homes do not have enough room to accommodate a home office or the space for a makeshift desk.
If you live in a bigger home, you can convert an unused room into an office space. This can be especially helpful if you are considering starting a business, as having a space in your home to do this can save you a lot of money on rent.
You may love your current home, but it may be time for you to look for something a little larger. If your family is growing, it may be time for more space. Moving into a bigger home is also a good idea if you have the funds. Additionally, a new, larger house can be a big help if you work from home and need designated office space!

Most Popular Backyard Upgrades People Are Making Now

If there is one thing the global pandemic has left us with, it’s the realization that home is where the heart is. Millions of Americans have been on the move in search of more space or amenities. But millions more are seizing the moment to upgrade the homes they live in. Here are five of the most popular backyard projects with tips on costs and installation.

Landscape Design – Since the pandemic began, there has been soaring interest in gardening across the board. Now, many homeowners are seeking a more pleasing design. Experts say the average landscape project in the U.S. will cost between $1,000 and $5,800.

Fence and Gate Installation – While some are more than ready to invite people in, most people want boundaries as well, and the installation of gates and fences is the second most popular yard project. For many, the big decision is whether to use wood or vinyl. Since the lumber shortage has caused soaring wood prices, the gap in cost between them is narrow, plus vinyl lasts longer. Considering materials, labor and the size of the yard, this project could cost between $475 for a simple gate and $7,000 for all-around fencing.

Play Equipment – Installing swings, slides, tree houses and other play equipment is understandably popular. Experts say unless construction is one of your strong suits, hire someone to do the installation. It should cost no more than $300 or $400.

Patios and Patio Additions – Cookouts are nicer under a covered patio. The cost for building a new patio is about $2,500. Covering an existing patio will vary in cost depending on size and features, such as permanent or retractable covering.

Gazebo – If you dream of reading or listening to music in the shade of your own gazebo, prepare to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on size. Check local ordinances, too, as a permit may be required for this lovely backyard amenity.

The Pros and Cons of Buying a Vacation Home

With the recent rise in remote work, vacation markets all across the country are experiencing a surge in demand that’s driven by buyers who are taking the leap to become second homeowners. If you’re considering purchasing a vacation property, here are a few of the pros and cons to keep in mind.


It’s a vacation home!
Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: there’s nothing like having your own vacation home to escape to on a moment’s notice without having to worry about bookings. It’s all about personal enjoyment and creating a place where the whole family can have fun together.

Income Potential
When you’re not using it, there’s always the possibility of renting out your second home to offset the costs. Furthermore, depending on how often you rent it out, you may be able to deduct all of the operating expenses.

Investment Opportunity
With the unprecedented shift in our work-life balance, real estate in vacation markets increasingly looks to represent a long-term store of value. For this reason, homes in exclusive destination markets are a safe bet to appreciate over time.


Double Your Home Expenses
It’s no secret that homeownership is expensive, and taking on a second property is a significant decision that needs to be carefully discussed with your financial advisor. After all, the last thing you want is for your vacation home to be a source of stress.

Extra Maintenance
Maintaining a second home can be even more difficult than your primary residence because you’re not always there to oversee the property. Something simple, like fixing a leaky roof before it causes extensive water damage, can easily go unnoticed.

Higher Mortgage Rates
Mortgage rates for a second home are slightly higher than they are for a primary residence and, in addition to this, it’s quite common that lenders will request a larger down payment, which is important to factor in before you fall in love with your next home. 

What Happens to My Escrow Account If I Refinance?

All mortgages require a monthly payment. Typically, the monthly payment consists of the principal repayment, prorated property tax, prorated homeowner’s insurance payment and interest. Of these, your taxes and insurance payments are held in a trust account with the lender, called the escrow account. When you refinance a mortgage, existing escrow accounts are usually closed and a new one is opened specific to the new loan.

To better understand the advantages and disadvantages of escrow accounts and how they work, read below.

Understanding Escrow Accounts. When you pay your monthly mortgage payment, your taxes and insurance are kept in an escrow account held by your mortgage company. When these bills are due, the bank is responsible for paying them for you in a timely manner. Some lenders require you to open an escrow account in order to grant you the loan; others will let you pay the bills yourself.

The Previous Escrow Account. When you refinance a loan, the original escrow account remains with the old loan. Escrow funds, unfortunately, cannot be transferred to new loans, even if it’s with the same lender. All the property tax and insurance payments you have made to that account, since the last payment was made, will be returned to you, usually within 45 days via wire transfer or check.

Using Old Escrow Funds. Because the funds will be sent to you at a later date, it is usually not possible to use held escrow funds from a previous loan to apply toward your new escrow account on the refinanced loan. This will require you to come up with more funds at closing to fund your new escrow account and, depending on the time of year that you are refinancing, the lender may require a substantial amount in taxes to be pre-paid into escrow.

Benefits of Escrow Accounts. If you choose to utilize an escrow account for your loan, you may receive a lower interest rate. The lender becomes responsible for paying your quarterly property tax, as well as payments to your homeowners insurance, freeing you from having to remember to pay them. Due to property taxes being financially burdensome in some cities, being able to split the amount due into 12 equal payments makes it easier to afford for most people.

Opting Out of an Escrow Account. When deciding about an escrow account on your refinanced loan, keep in mind that without an escrow account, the closing costs will generally be lower because you are not depositing funds for future property tax or insurance payments in advance.

4 Reasons You Should Get a Mortgage Pre-Approval

If you’re just starting out with the home-buying process, you may want to get a mortgage pre-approval. This is a statement from a lender that informs you of a certain amount you are qualified to borrow, as well as a specific pre-approved interest rate. Not only will this help you, but to sellers and agents as well. Here are four real reasons why you should get a mortgage pre-approval before you start your home search.

Understand Your Realistic Budget
Arguably the most important factor when buying a home will be the cost. It is important to know not only the cost of a home, but the cost of agent fees, repairs, inspections and more. With a mortgage pre-approval, you can set educated limits and budgets to be sure that any home you may be interested in will be one you can afford.

Become a More Attractive Buyer
For sellers, especially in a sellers market, finding a buyer with a mortgage pre-approval is an advantage. Buyers with pre-approvals are at a lower risk of falling through on the purchase due to lack of financing. If you put an offer in on a home with a pre-approval, and another buyer without pre-approval also puts in an offer, you will be more likely to be approved and move forward through this part of the process. 

Find Room to Negotiate
Because a pre-approval makes you more attractive to sellers, you may also be awarded some flexibility in terms of negotiations. When a seller is sure a buyer has been qualified for the cost of their offer, they may be more likely to make financial compromises, such as closing costs, repairs and improvements, if it means the sale is guaranteed. 

Speed Up the Closing Process
During the process of closing, mortgage approval plays a part in time delays. With a mortgage pre-approval already done and financing secured, you are able to jump into the following steps, such as appraisal and inspections. If a seller wants to close quickly, something almost every buyer can hope for, having your finances pre-approved will be beneficial to both parties involved.

Should You Buy a House That Has Been on the Market for Several Months?

Sometimes a homeowner lists a house for sale and receives an offer within days. In other cases, a home goes unsold for months. That can happen for a variety of reasons that may or may not be related to characteristics of the house.

Why a Real Estate Listing May Go ‘Stale’
A house may go unsold because it has one or more serious problems, such as a leaky roof or a cracked foundation. Potential buyers may be unwilling to purchase a house that will need major repairs.

Location may play a role. Buyers may pass over a house that’s in an area with high crime rates, not in a good school district, located near a highway or a factory, or in a place that is undesirable for some other reason.

The house may be overpriced. Although real estate agents try to help their clients set listing prices that will attract buyers, some sellers have unrealistic expectations and insist on asking for higher amounts. Even if a seller later lowers the price, prospective buyers may assume that the price reduction means there is a problem with the house’s condition and it may continue to go unsold.

The owner may not be in a hurry to sell. Sometimes homeowners are thinking about selling but aren’t in any rush, so they list their house to test the waters. A homeowner may want a minimum amount that is non-negotiable and may be willing to wait as long as necessary to find a buyer willing to pay that sum.

It’s also possible that the seller lined up a buyer, but the deal fell through for some reason. If that’s the case, that means the seller had to start again from Square One.

Find Out Why the House Hasn’t Sold
If you come across a listing for a home that has most or all of the features you want, don’t automatically pass on it because of the number of days it has been on the market. Instead, get more information. Ask your real estate agent to find out why the house hasn’t sold and to inquire about the seller’s timetable and reason for listing the property.

You may learn that the house has lingered on the market for reasons that have nothing to do with its condition or location. You may find out that the seller is frustrated and eager to find a buyer as quickly as possible. If that’s the case, that can give you negotiating power and you may be able to buy the house at a bargain. 

Don’t Make a Hasty Decision
Even if the seller is willing to accept a low offer, be sure to have the house inspected, just as you would any other property. An inspector may discover a problem that will cause you to rethink your decision. If the house turns out to be in good condition, you will be able to proceed with confidence that you’re making a wise investment. 

3 Updates to Make Before Moving Into Your New House

Moving into a new home usually isn’t an easy, straightforward task. Sometimes it can even be very stressful. However, after the initial stress of dragging all of your belongings from one house to another, the process becomes easier and can even be quite fun. This being said, there are some things you can do to expedite the process, so planning ahead is definitely a good idea when it comes to moving.

It helps to know a few things ahead of time, including important updates you may want to make to your new house before settling in. Here are three recommended updates to make before moving into your new home:
New Locks
After moving in, you’ll likely want to relax, so you won’t want anyone with a key to come in unannounced. This is why you should change the locks as soon as your name is on the lease. By extension, you may want to have your local locksmiths on your contact list, just in case you can’t get in and there is nobody there to open the door.
Pipes and Plumbing
Another necessity you’ll likely use immediately after moving in is your tap water. Whether you’re washing dishes after your first dinner in the new house, taking a shower in the morning or flushing the toilet, you don’t want any clogging or overflowing after you’ve settled in. That’s why it’s wise to make sure your pipes and plumbing are working securely.
Working electricity is critical no matter where you move. You can’t have family movie night if you can’t turn on the television, and what will you do if you have a lot of food that belongs in the freezer? Not to mention, you can’t call anyone if you can’t charge your phone. Therefore, it’s necessary to have reliable electricity, even if that means you have to upgrade it.
Even if you live alone, it is important to make sure these things are taken care of before you officially settle. So, if you plan on moving into a new home, whether with the family or on your own, be sure that you remember the essentials ahead of time!

Spring Cleaning: Organize and Optimize Your Home Office

Don’t you just hate it when you can’t seem to find anything at your desk or in your home office?

As many continue to work from their home offices, now is as good a time as any to take stock of your items and tidy up a bit to help make your workweek a bit easier. After all, a little spring cleaning never hurts.
Here are a few ways that you can reorganize your home workspaces and offices.
Get Rid of Clutter
Making time to file documents away can help alleviate frustration and prevent it from coming back. Create a designated storage space for frequently used files so that they are easy to find when you need them. Color-coding and labeling folders and drawers can also help. For any other files and documents that you don’t need readily available, keep them in a filing cabinet or on a nearby bookshelf.
This can also apply to your desktops and web browsers. Set up folders on your desktop where you can keep digital files handy. Be sure to label everything appropriately and have them neatly stored on your laptop.
Rearrange the Room
Sometimes a change of layout can make all the difference in reorganizing and optimizing your space. Try repositioning your furniture for easier access to bookshelves and filing cabinets so you can easily store things rather than letting them pile on top of your workspace.
Storage, Storage and More Storage
Having designated storage for files, materials and anything else you need can help get your workspace organized and stay that way in the future. For smaller items—-paper clips, pens, etc.—-simple desktop holders and baskets can do the trick. For files and essential documents, invest in a small filing cabinet to store and keep track of necessary paperwork. It also helps to label the folders in your filing cabinet so that you can easily refer back to a particular one.
Digitally Organize Documents
Going paperless is another excellent option that can help clear up your desk and office space. Convert paper copies into digital files with a scanner, or scanner app on your smartphone, so you can label and file them away without taking up physical space.