With New Jersey’s 565 municipalities which include boroughs, cities, towns, townships, and villages, obtaining a variance for your home in the Garden State may be harder than you think. A variance, or special permission for anything you need to do on your property that isn’t otherwise permitted, is regulated at the municipal level. So, if you are building a new home, adding to your house or changing the use of the property, you might need a variance.

The process of acquiring a variance can be overwhelming, financially prohibitive, and confusing. Many, sometimes surprising, activities require a variance in New Jersey. For example, you might want to add a porch or extend your kitchen by a few feet, and your town requires a variance. It may even be something as simple as building a shed or a fence.

Here are 5 must-knows when you need a variance in NJ:

1. Talk to your municipality zoning officer about your project before proceeding

When it comes to a variance, the old adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission simply doesn’t apply. In fact, when considering a project, the zoning officer should be the first point of contact. Set up an appointment and have property or proposed development plans in hand. Ask your town municipal office for the zoning regulations in advance so that you can prepare for the meeting and put together your questions.

Remember, the cost of proceeding with your project before understanding local zoning regulations can be expensive. If homeowners try to bypass or ignore the rules and are issued a stop-work order, they risk losing everything they’ve invested in their partially-completed project.

2. Research variance rules specific to your municipality

It’s essential to have an understanding of variance rules specific to your municipality. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities website has many useful links. In particular, there is an Ordinances and Shared Services Agreements library with ordinances adopted by NJ municipalities. Often you can also purchase a copy of ordinances specific to your town at the town clerk’s office. Buying a copy of the ordinances is useful for your reference, attorneys, and contractors working on your project.

3. Consult your attorney and contractors before applying for a variance

Often, attorneys in the local area have relationships with the zoning officer and can ensure the right types of questions are asked. An attorney can also attend preliminary meetings with the zoning officer in advance of planning board hearings, help interpret the fine print and determine how best to get a variance approved.

You may also need to ask for guidance or documents from your architect, builder, land surveyor or contractor. In New Jersey, an architect is almost always required to design a project. Other contractors you are using for your project may need to submit documents in advance of the hearing showing the detail of work that is part of the project scope. Be sure the professionals you use are familiar with building codes in New Jersey. An experienced NJ real estate agent can also help point you in the right direction and assist you with securing advice from qualified professionals.

In addition to fees you will pay your contractors, keep in mind that there are application fees related to the variance filing and often municipality services. You could be asked to put money in escrow to pay for estimated professional review services contracted by the township. If the amount of money in escrow is insufficient to pay for the final costs of the review, you will be asked to pay the difference.

When it comes to a variance, the old adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission simply doesn’t apply.

4. Talk to your neighbors about your variance application

Part of the final “yea or nay” decision can depend on your neighbors. They will get to weigh in and decide whether your proposed variance might affect their property value, so be neighborly. Depending on the type of variance application, you may be required to provide public notice of the planning or zoning board meeting date. Property owners that have lots within 200 feet of your property must be notified, typically by certified mail, and neighbors are permitted to attend the hearing.

Also, consider making an appearance at a planning board meeting before asking for the variance. Introduce yourself to the members of the committee. Introductions and friendly discourse can go a long way in helping get a variance approved.

5. Know how to prove the need for a variance

When appearing before the planning board to present your case for a variance, be sure you come prepared. You need to be ready to cite reasons that support your need as well as speak to your planning and construction documents. Discuss why not getting a variance would place a hardship on you or why your proposal is necessary for reasonable use of your property. And look at it from the zoning board’s point of view. They’ll want to see evidence that your proposed addition or construction won’t be obtrusive or devalue the neighborhood. Do your research, and come to the meeting ready to back your case.

When it comes to obtaining a variance for your New Jersey home, it’s essential to understand the process and potential hurdles. An experienced real estate agent can help introduce you to professionals who will work to ensure a successful variance application process.

If you’re thinking about buying a home in northern New Jersey, I would love to assist you. And, if you find a home you love but want to make a few changes which require a variance, I would be happy to answer your questions and guide you along the way. Contact me, Victoria Carter, at victoria@victoriacarter.com or call (973) 220-3050.

10 Thoughts on “5 Must-Knows When You Need a Variance in NJ

  1. Hamid says:

    For 9 months the lawyer I hired trying to get me variance

  2. Ted Reimel says:

    Do you need to have your zoning applications denied by the zoning officer, before seeking a variance? Since that would show proof that my proposed use is not permitted? NJ rules.

    • Victoria Carter Victoria Carter says:

      Hi Ted, No, you don’t. You can apply for a variance based on what is permitted by the township ordinances. If what you are trying to do is not explicitly permitted, you can file for a variance.

  3. Marlene says:

    I currently own a 2 family with my basement being a ground floor, can I make it a legal apartment?

    • Victoria Carter Victoria Carter says:

      Hi Marlene, Check with your township zoning board, and they can tell you based on ordinances for your town.

  4. Peter says:

    What are the chances of overcoming a Res Judicata on a ‘D’ use variance denial for converting a 1 to 2 family use?

    • Victoria Carter Victoria Carter says:

      Hi Peter, it’s difficult to say as each township is so different. I think you can try and speak to the township zoning board, and from there, perhaps seek legal advice.

  5. S Adele says:

    Do you think paying over $1500 in escrow for a simple fence variance is fair or standard?

    • Victoria Carter Victoria Carter says:

      Hi Shannon, It varies by town, but as the funds are in escrow, $1500 may be an upper limit. Call the town and ask what the average cost for fence variances usually runs. I hope this information is helpful.

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