Q&A: What are the Three Things to Check Before Buying a House?

We recently held another successful Vision Workshop for a single family house in the Oceanfront of Virginia Beach. The house is a lovely mid-century modern home on a corner lot that our client purchased not long ago. After studying the zoning setback requirements, they showed that the actual area able to build on was much smaller than our client thought it could be. This smaller area presented a great deal of challenges to their original thoughts of adding a first floor master suite, as well as a swimming pool.

With our Vision Workshop complete, we successfully explored two possible design directions and settled on a layout that reconfigures the existing floor plan and creates a master suite with a view of the pool. Although the final design is not what the client had originally envisioned, we were able to come up with a new solution together that they appreciate even more. However, in order to achieve this new design layout, the restrictions of existing conditions and setback requirements will likely increase the cost of the renovations, and require compromises on a few aspects such as ceiling height, etc. 

This is not the first time we have been contacted by a client who recently closed on a house and then found out there are challenges they had never thought about. The first thing our Oceanfront client said after seeing the zoning setback diagram during the Vision Workshop was: “We probably should have talked to you before we bought the house.”

In order to help you make better informed decisions, we would like to share a few things that you will want to examine if you are looking to renovate or add an addition to a house you are planning to purchase.  Even if you love the house or the location so much and will buy it regardless, these considerations could also serve as something you can use to negotiate the price with the seller, as these things are the same challenges that any prospective buyer will be facing.

Zoning Setback Requirements

If you want to add an addition to the house, it has to comply with current zoning and building codes. One fundamental aspect of the zoning code is setback requirements. You will need to know which zone you are in and check the local Zoning Ordinance for all of the zoning setback requirements for that particular zone. The front yard setback distances are generally the largest, and side and back yard setbacks are typically smaller.

Zoning requirements shown in a 3-dimensional view for a project in Virginia beach.

You will also need a physical survey of the property to know exactly where your property lines exist. Once you have the physical survey, you will want to add the setback distances from the property lines. The remaining area is the space available for you to build the addition within lot coverage. If you are considering a pool and other auxiliary structures, they also have different setback requirements. Other important requirements you may want to look at, depending on your lot size, is maximum height and maximum lot coverage (or impervious surface coverage sometimes). 

If you feel that trying to find this information is a little overwhelming, another option to consider is to simply take the survey to the City and talk to a staff member in the zoning department.

Floodplain Ordinance

Flooding is becoming a more and more critical issue in the Hampton Roads area. All of the seven cities have their own Floodplain Ordinance to regulate building on the properties in each type of flood zone. To know whether the property you are looking at is in a flood zone, the best way is to get an Elevation Certificate (EC) from the surveyor. 

The flood zone is an ever changing situation because of the sea level rise. Some cities (such as Norfolk) require using new vertical Datum, which is NAVD88 Datum, that replaces NGVD29 Datum, the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) might change accordingly. So you want to make sure you have a recent Elevation Certificate that is using NAVD88 Datum

If the property is in a flood zone, there are a few important numbers you will want to look at on the Elevation Certificate. First is the Base Flood Elevation (BFE). Second is Top of the next higher floor, which is typically your first floor elevation. Your first floor elevation is usually required to be equal to or higher than the Design Flood Elevation (DFE, which is BFE plus Freeboard). The height of Freeboard varies in different cities, and might change throughout time. Again, the easiest way to get this information is to call a member of the City Zoning staff or check your local zoning ordinance documents online. 

It is very important that your first floor elevation is above DFE if you want to add an addition or start a renovation. First, if your current first floor elevation is below DFE, it is still fine for you to keep it and renovate it, but your new addition has to comply with the current DFE. That means the first floor of your addition has to be higher than the first floor of your main house. 

A project in Norfolk, VA. The addition, which is a guest suite/pool house, has to be one step above the main house, due to the change of Datum required by the City.

For example, we had a project built in 2006 in zone AE8 in Norfolk. Back then the EC was using NGVD29 Datum. The BFE on that EC is 8.5 feet, and first floor is 11.6 feet, which is more than the DFE required (11.5 feet, 8.5 feet BFE plus 3 feet freeboard required by the City of Norfolk). However,  when we were doing an addition this year, we have to get an EC using NAVD88 Datum, which changes the BFE to 8 feet, and first floor to 10.6 feet. So our current design does not comply with the DFE any more. In order to solve this issue, we ended up adding an additional step from the main house to the addition. 

Secondly, even if you can keep the elevation of existing part for renovation, the renovation itself  is subject to a 50% substantial improvement rule. This rule means the improvement value of the renovation can not exceed 50% of the existing building value (not the property value). Each city has a relatively different way to calculate the improvement values. Some might just consider values related to building permit application, which usually involves structure, framing, etc. Others might consider everything in construction, including finishes, cabinets, etc. 

If your renovation improvement value exceed 50% existing building value, do not panic. Most cities allow you to complete your renovation in different phases. Again, each city has different requirements in terms of how to separate into each phase. Some cities require you to finish the first phase before you can apply for a building permit for the second phase. Some require the two phases to be one year apart, or some allow you to pull Phase II permit as long as your Phase I permit is issued. 

Chesapeake Bay Protection Area

Last but not least, the Chesapeake Bay Protection Area (CBPA) has setback requirements in Resource Protection Area (RPA) zones; 50’ for the seaward buffer and another 50’ for the landward buffer, if simply put. A good rule of thumb is that if your property is near water or wetland, it is most likely in a CBPA zone. You could call the city officials or check on the city’s GIS map to find out whether the property is in CBPA zone. Either way, it will require a physical survey to add all these CBPA delineation lines on the survey drawing to know exactly where the lines are relative to your property lines and the existing building. 

If you want to build anything that extends in the buffer, it will require you to apply for a variance. If it is between the 50’ and 100’ buffer, sometimes the variance can be granted by an Administrative variance, otherwise the application will have to be approved by the board. 

A project in Virginia Beach, VA. Because the majority of the lot is in Chesapeake Bay Protection Area, it has to apply for a board variance to add the outdoor living spaces.

As another example, we successfully applied for a board variance for a property in Virginia Beach. The lot is near wetland and the majority of the lot is located within the CBPA buffer. The original design of the house did not fully take advantage of the scenic site in terms of including outdoor living spaces and creating functional and attractive indoor-outdoor relationships. Though in order to accomplish it, we worked with the CBPA requirements carefully to balance the impact of the design on the site and the functions required by the client.


The topics above are some key considerations that will affect the possible building footprint when you want to add an addition or to what extent you can renovate a house. Unlike the building code which is at state level and the same in the 7 cities of Hampton Roads, the zoning and environmental requirements are very site specific and have many variables

Before taking on the purchase of a house, or even before starting your home renovation project, it is critical to understand all these key constraints. Even if you have the budget to invest in the project, you may still not be able to do what you wanted with the house, or at least not without compromising what you have your heart set on. Either that, or there could be a creative solution to work with the new constraints, but involves more costs.  

The above mentioned considerations are a simplified summary. The ordinance and regulations related could be much broader. Also when these three aspects are combined, it could be even more complicated. For some lots that could be difficult to deal with by a homeowner, you should certainly consult the zoning staff, or turn to a professional for help.   

Besides the zoning and environmental requirements, there are also challenges of existing building structure and building systems that will affect your project. It is not only about the age of the structure, or if something needs to be replaced with something new, it is also about whether it will allow to open up or reconfigure the space. More on that soon, stay tuned!

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