let’s talk : ZONING vs USE REGISTRATION (in Philadelphia)

So today is STORY TIME! Let me tell you all about a lesson I learned the hard way on Project Philadelphia. There is a difference between ZONING & REGISTERED USE (in Philadelphia – make sure to check your local laws to see if you have something similar) that was just brought to my attention. 

So, as we do, let’s talk Real Estate, let’s talk PROPERTY ZONING vs REGISTERED USE…

Just a little recap on Project Philadelphia. This is a single family home that we are converting into a Duplex. We have been working on this bad boy since the end of July and we were just about reaching the point where it was time to bring in final inspections so that we could close up the walls and get started on the finishing touches when we hit a major roadblock…

When our electrician went to the city to pull the permit for the inspection it was denied. Why?! Because while the property was zoned RM1 (multi-family), it was registered for use as a single family home. To say I was CONFUSED was an understatement. I bought the property under the impression from the realtor that it was already zoned properly so we “could start right away”! I even went on the city website, atlas.com, and saw the RM1 zoning myself! My general contractor had gone to the city and pulled alteration permits with the drawings and NOTHING WAS FLAGGED. ALL signs pointed to YES -THIS WAS A MULTI FAMILY. To be honest, there is nowhere online where I see this registered as a single family home, but I guess I should have assumed since it was last used as a single family. 

I immediately called the city offices. Unfortunately,  I had been made aware of this issue on a Friday afternoon – the Friday before Veterans Day so not only had the offices closed early but they were also going to be closed that following Monday. I was devastated but accepted there was nothing I could do that weekend. First thing Tuesday morning I called several different city offices to try and get through to the right person. After being transferred to what felt like a million different offices, I decided it was time to bring in a professional. I am all about DIY and learning from your experiences however in this instance I had no clue what I was doing and at this point was just losing money. I reached out to a group called Philadelphia Zoning. They essentially take on this task for you for a fee. They physically walk through each step of the process on your behalf. After our initial call they gave me a timeline of 2 weeks – 3 months to remediate this issue… 3 MONTHS?! I was on month 4 of a what was supposed to be a 4 month project. Nonetheless, I signed up with them and put our fate in their hands. I filled out the use registration change application, provided them our plans, and paid the invoice. The rest was left to Philadelphia Zoning…. and TWO WEEKS LATER WE WERE EMAILED OUR USE REGISTRATION PERMIT. Hallelujah. We were now back on track! Now, I am sure you may be asking, couldn’t I have just handled this myself and NOT paid a fee? 100% BUT this fee was SO WORTH IT. In this instance, bringing in a professional, may have saved us 3 months, and an infinite amount of headaches. I will absolutely work with them again for future permits! 

Moral of this whole story – check with the city to make sure you are truly good to go on all fronts, and if you are still unsure, work with an expediter, like Philadelphia Zoning! They were beyond helpful and I cannot recommend them enough (& no I am not paid to say that). I found it comforting and also not comforting to learn that PLENTY of other investors in the area have run into this same issue. So, in order to help others from running into this, I hope to blast this to as many people as possible! Details matter! I hope you can read this and learn from my most recent mistake 🙂 

In case you all are interested on the true difference between zoning and use registration I have pulled a quick overview from the Philadelphia City website (please see below).

Zoning Permits authorize construction or an addition to a building. A zoning permit is required for the following:

  • All new construction
  • Building an extension to an existing structure
  • Creating a lot or subdividing a lot
  • Demolition or partial demolition of a structure
  • Billboards and certain signs
  • Construction of masonry fences above two (2) feet
  • Construction of fences above legal height limits allowed by Zoning Code in the specific Zoning classification ruling that property.  (See the Zoning Code or the Zoning Quick Reference Guide.)
  • Creation of off-street parking or reconfiguration of existing parking
  • Installation of some signs  in addition to the actual sign permit

Use Registration Permits authorize a particular use of the building or ground. A use registration permit is required for the following situations:

  • Changes in any activity in an existing building
  • New business use for a property
  • Increases or decreases in the number of dwelling units
  • Elimination of an existing use in a property
  • Billboards and most signs

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Happy Wednesday!
Erin

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Data Sources for Today’s Content: 

Me – this is also based on my own personal experience!

Philadelphia Zoning Website

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