4 things to know about non-conforming structures

Non-conforming structures may have special limitations related to their use due to abandonment, reconstruction and public welfare.

Changing zoning laws in Massachusetts can make real estate transactions complicated. A once commercial neighborhood that has been rezoned as residential, for example, may have one or two businesses grandfathered into the area. According to MassLive.com, the state's zoning laws are undergoing massive changes because most of the laws had not been updated since 1975. This massive update may create more non-conforming structures, which means investors need to learn about this type of property.

1. Abandonment may change conformity

According to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, any non-conforming building that has been abandoned for two or more years may no longer be grandfathered in with past zoning laws. In other words, if one of the businesses in a newly residential neighborhood is left unused for two or more years, the city may be able to change the allowed uses of the building. Anyone who purchases the building may have to follow new by-laws or ordinances created for the neighborhood.

2. Alterations may be limited

If a person bought one of the businesses in a newly residential area, he or she may not be allowed to reconstruct or add to the building for the sake of a business. Typically, alterations are not allowed if it would create a substantially different use for the building. This does not mean that changes cannot be made, however. If an addition does not negatively impact the neighborhood and does not increase the non-conformity of the building, a special permit may be given for the reconstruction.

3. Non-conforming use may be terminated

In some cases, cities may be able to require the termination of a non-conforming use of a structure. If this does happen, owners are usually given a set amount of time, such as 30 to 60 days, to end their use of the building. The time allotted before the termination must be complete depends on the nature of the use and the investment put into the structure.

4. Regulations may still be put in place

Even though the use of a structure does not conform to the current zoning ordinances, the building's use may be regulated by the city. These regulations are usually put in place to protect the public's welfare. In other words, a commercial building in a new residential zone may not be able to house any businesses that are deemed potentially damaging to families or dangerous to the health of the neighborhood residents.

Because there may be non-conforming land, lots and structures in Massachusetts, investors should learn about the history of certain properties before making a purchase. In some cases, it may be beneficial to work with an attorney who is familiar with real estate law to ensure the buyers understand how the non-conforming property can be used.