If you’ve ever spent time with an expert on a particular topic, it is amazing how that knowledge gives them a much deeper insight into their focus area than you would have as a non-expert.
- Drinking wine with a sommelier or viticulturist gives you a very different understanding and experience of the bottle.
- Watching a game with an avid fan of the team that is playing helps you see strategies, underlying issues and implications of plays that may otherwise be hidden.
- Diagnosing a car problem with an experienced mechanic immediately reveals potential sources of the problem that rely on deductive reasoning you couldn’t have done on your own.
In real estate, we work hard to become experts in our field and then maintain that expertise. We are helped in that pursuit by having access to specialized sources of knowledge such as the land registry, broker versions of the MLS system and the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation records.
While a number of our sources are private and only available to registered real estate agents, some are available to the general public. One of the most useful sources for specific property knowledge that anyone can access is the zoning information for a property.
While it may be publicly available, it can be hard to interpret what the zoning means. Our experience as Realtors gives us an edge in that regard, and we often help our clients translate how the zoning impacts a decision they are considering.
Let’s go through an example, where a client asks us if we have any idea how big a house can be built on a lot they are considering buying. There are two very different answers to that question.
The Safe Answer
The safe answer is simple, but not helpful to you in your decision making.
“That’s outside of my training and knowledge as a Realtor. You would need to consult an architect, a surveyor or speak with the planning department of the municipality.”
As Realtors, our governing body would prefer that we always take this approach. There is a significant risk that a real estate agent could get the answer wrong in some aspect. While we agree that we can’t and shouldn’t give you the only and final answer to this question, there is a better answer in our opinion.
The Better Answer
The better answer is nuanced.
“I’m not an architect, surveyor, or planner, so I can’t give you a definitive answer. I can introduce you to some people for you to hire to get the definitive answer before you make a decision based on the answer. If you want us to talk about what we do know and what it might mean, then I’m happy to do so. That way, we can perhaps get you enough information that may help you decide if you want to continue on and hire a professional.”
The first answer is safe but not helpful. The other answer is not definitive, but it is at least helpful.
We are comfortable giving our clients the better answer. Starting to gather the knowledge you need to make a decision is always the right approach to moving forward. Let’s go over what we can discover when we explore the available information for zoning.
What do we know?
Here’s how we did the initial exploration of how big a house could be built on the lot.
We began by looking up the zoning for the property on the City of Toronto interactive zoning map online.
Most municipalities have their own version of this, or you can call in to the planning department to get the details.
Here is the zoning for the property the client is considering in our example and each of those links can be opened to see the bylaw chapters if you’re super keen.
What does it actually mean?
The taxonomy for zoning details can be hard to decipher but with a bit of practice, you can start to understand all the information that is being provided in a very short zoning description.
Our example has a zone label of RD (f13.5; a510; d0.45) (x35).
Here’s what that means in plain English.
- RD (Residential Detached), so it is zoned for detached homes only.
- 5 (minimum lot frontage of 13.5 metres), so we have the minimum lot frontage, which this property exceeds. Reading the bylaws also tells us that houses in the RD zone with a required minimum lot frontage of 18.0 metres or less (like this property), are permitted a maximum building length for a detached house of 17.0 metres.
- A510 (minimum lot area of 510 metres), which this property easily exceeds.
- 45 (permitted maximum floor space index of 45% coverage of the lot)
- X35 (exception RD 35, as linked to above in Chapter 900, sets the maximum gross floor area to be 150 square metres, plus 25% of the lot area)
We’re trying to get a rough answer as to how big a house could be built on this property, and with some simple math using the zoning information, we see that is 150 square metres, plus 25% of the lot area of 368 square metres, which equals 92 square metres. Combine the two and we see that the zoning permits a house with a maximum gross floor area of 242 square metres, or just over 2,600 square feet.
We know that there are setbacks and other considerations that would need to be included in the process to get at a definitive answer as to the size of house that could be built.
We do, however, have enough information here to get a general ballpark answer that may help the client decide if it is worth investigating further. While this quick review isn’t be relied upon to make a purchase decision, it can be helpful in deciding if hiring professionals to get a definitive answer is worth doing.
Based on this review, our client can build a detached house with up to a 2,600 sf footprint. This means around 5,200 sf of living space on two levels, plus the basement. It is possible other factors like setbacks could limit this, but that’s the general size of house that would be permitted for this lot.
It takes a little bit of effort and some understanding of how zoning works, but we were able to start answering the question without incurring the costs of hiring a professional right off the bat.
When you work with someone who is willing to explore the initial stages of questions that come up, things move along. You get more information that helps you decide whether proceeding further is worth it or not. If that sounds like the sort of approach you’d like in your real estate dealings, then get in touch.