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What Are Zoning Laws And How Do They Work?

April 26, 2024 5-minute read

Author: Sarah Sharkey


Zoning laws affect the fabric of our lives in a direct way. Although the patchwork of zoning regulations can be confusing at times, the goal of zoning laws is to structure cities and municipalities efficiently.

Depending on where you live, these regulations can affect you in different ways, so it’s important to understand what zoning laws are and how they work. Let’s take a closer look below.

What Are Zoning Laws?

Zoning laws refer to specific rules and regulations for pieces of land divided into “zones” by the government or a municipality. A zoning law, or zoning ordinance, dictates acceptable methods of land use for real property inside zoning districts.

Essentially, zoning laws determine which types of properties can coexist in different areas of the city.

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How Do Zoning Laws Work?

Zoning laws are made by branches of the local government, municipal corporation or a county. When an area is deemed a zoning district, there will be specific regulations on how a property owner can use the land within a zone.

For example, there may be a zone designated for a particular residential style, such as single-family homes. In another zoning district, there may be a commercial designation for businesses. Of course, there can be some zoning districts determined to be mixed-use – both commercial and residential.

Changes And Amendments To Zoning Laws

It’s possible that visions for a certain community will change over time, or for property owners to request an exception for a certain project. For example, if a property owner would like to start a home-based business, they can request an exception that would allow that business to run within a residential zone.

To do so, property owners can apply for a variance that may warrant an exception from some municipalities. In most communities, those impacted by the proposed amendments can voice their concerns or approval at a public hearing. However, each municipality has its own process. If you’re interested in proposing an amendment, you should reach out to your local government for the next steps.

Zoning Laws Vs. HOA Rules

It’s important to recognize that zoning laws are different from the rules made by homeowners associations (HOAs). Although the rules of an HOA can affect your property usage, the rules are not made by a local government.

What Is The Purpose Of Zoning?

There are a number of different purposes for zoning depending on the type of property. In the past, zoning has been viewed as a way to protect the integrity of the community. Many communities view zoning laws as a way to ensure that residents don’t have to deal with loud noise levels or high traffic areas.

Zones can protect important natural and historical resources, and ensure that facilities that risk the health and safety of a community’s occupants aren’t established near a residential neighborhood. Zoning laws can also require that buildings have an adequate level of natural lighting, air quality and even privacy.

What Is The Purpose Of Commercial Zoning?

Commercial zoning might serve different purposes. Commercial zoning laws might restrict the type of business operating within that area. For established businesses, these laws might regulate the number of parking spots available, usage of signs and access to exits and fire escapes. Each law is intended to maintain the integrity of the community and regulate growth.

Types Of Zoning Restrictions

Now that you know a little bit more about general zoning laws, let’s dive into the different types of zoning restrictions.


The residential dwelling units that people call home can look dramatically different throughout a municipality. With that, a local government will likely create several zones that encompass different types of dwellings. Here are a few types of housing units that can fall into a residential zone.

  • Single-family residences

  • Suburban homesteads

  • Apartments

  • Trailer parks

  • Co-ops

  • Condos

  • Home-based businesses

As you can see, the types of home within a residential zone can be very different. However, the zoning ordinance will determine common items that create a cohesive area. These include:

  • The kind, and number, of animals allowed at the residence, if any

  • Encumbrances such as the number of structures allowed on the property

  • The allowance of placements of manufactured homes

  • Whether or not a multifamily home can be built on the property


Commercial zoning laws will affect businesses in a particular city. The types of units that often fall under commercial zoning laws include:

  • Office buildings

  • Shopping centers

  • Hotels

  • Nightclubs

  • Restaurants

  • Vacant land with the potential for business development

Although the types of businesses in a commercial zone will vary, the municipality will be able to set rules that include:

  • The proximity of certain business types to others

  • Parking availability

  • The maximum building height


Industrial zones encompass businesses that work in an industrial capacity. You will often find large warehouses, loud manufacturing facilities, airports and storage facilities.

In most cases, these industrial zones are determined based on environmental factors such as loud noises or air quality. Typically, these zones are placed far from the residential sections of a municipality.


With older municipalities that have significant historical sections, a historic zone may be designated. The goal of this zoning strategy is usually to provide protection for these buildings.

Buildings with historical significance within this zone could be subject to tax deductions.


If a municipality has an agricultural industry, it may designate an agricultural zone. The goal is to protect farming communities and industries from the threat of sprawling urbanization. Within these districts, there are often restrictions on non-farm use of the land.

Zoning Laws: FAQs

Let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions about zoning laws.

What is zoning?

Zoning refers to a set of regulations that restrict how a property can and cannot be used. It can also mean regulating the size, shape and scale of the buildings on a certain property within a specific geographic area.

What can cities restrict through zoning laws?

Zoning laws allow local governments to restrict numerous things, from the number of animals allowed in a property to the maximum building height. The goal of these zoning laws is to protect the community and ensure common good for those who live there.

How can zoning laws be beneficial to a city’s residents?

Zoning laws can protect and enhance the value of real estate, and prevent the incompatibility of different land uses. Most importantly, zoning laws can help accomplish overall goals of a given community and stimulate economic growth.

Can a property be zoned both commercial and residential?

Yes, a property can be zoned both commercial and residential. Zones are typically categorized into single-use or mixed-use properties.

How do I find out what my property is zoned?

To find out which category your property is zoned in, call your local government. You may also be able to find a list of zoning ordinances or zoning maps online on your local government’s website.

The Bottom Line

If you’re considering homeownership, your local area’s zoning regulations can greatly impact your property. Take some time to review the zoning regulations of your city and determine which neighborhood fits with your goals for your future property. Once you’ve decided on your desired area, start an application with Rocket Mortgage® to find a property within your budget.

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Sarah Sharkey

Sarah Sharkey is a personal finance writer who enjoys diving into the details to help readers make savvy financial decisions. She’s covered mortgages, money management, insurance, budgeting, and more. She lives in Florida with her husband and dog. When she's not writing, she's outside exploring the coast. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.