In many respects, Nick is like most people who buy property. He searched high and low to find a house that he and his family liked, asked questions, negotiated a sales price, and moved in.

Sometime later, he realized that his family needed more storage space. He considered his options, and decided it would make the most sense to add onto the detached garage which was built less than 15 years ago.

He called the local building inspector to get a zoning permit for the addition. He submitted the required application with a site map that showed the house and the detached garage and where the addition would be located.

He thought it was simple enough. The building inspector likewise thought his plans were okay because the addition met the setback requirements and other standards.

As a final check, the building inspector pulled the property file out of his file cabinet, but couldn’t find what he was looking for. He couldn’t find the original permit for the detached garage. While not unusual, it was a little perplexing.

He kept flipping through the papers in the file and found a copy of the subdivision plat that showed Nick’s parcel. The plat also showed a drainage easement across a number of parcels in the subdivision, including Nick’s.

The building inspector eventually concluded the previous owner did not get a permit for the garage, and most importantly, a good portion of the garage was actually built in the drainage easement.

Needless to say, Nick was angry at everyone involved in the sale of the property, including himself.

While I can’t say for sure, I don’t think Nick took anyone to court, although he may have had ample cause. He did hire an engineer to redesign the drainage easement to accommodate the stormwater runoff and a surveyor to map the new easement.

In the end, Nick paid more for the engineer and the surveyor than what it cost to build the addition (twice over).  Not only that, it delayed his building plans more than nine months while everything got squared away.

How Could This Have Been Avoided?

There are many lessons to be learned, but how could technology have made it easier to avoid this in the future?  How could it be easier for buyers, realtors, and inspectors to find property information?  And therefore avoid the expensive outcome for Nick?

While the local municipality was by in large part out of the picture so to speak, this true story offers lessons of encouragement for municipalities of all sizes.

Naturally, local officials might think “Like what?” Simply put, local zoning information and services needs to be digital and in an easy to use platform so that people can:

  1. Find zoning information they need, without relying on others.

  2. Submit their development applications online.

  3. Find and review previously submitted development applications (like permits for detached garages).

Buying real estate is a process of discovery. It can take place before the sale or, as in Nick’s case, afterwards.

Local municipalities should do everything in their power to make sure zoning information is available upfront. The tools and technologies are now available. By providing zoning information online, everyone benefits.