Property Futures

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Construction: Legal Issues

Article: legal requirements surrounding residential and commercial construction.

New building construction projects and renovations are strictly regulated in most locations around the world: where a structure may lie within a plot of land as well as the structure’s purpose– and even what it looks like—may need legal evaluation. It’s important to understand your legal obligations as fines and delays can quickly turn a highly profitable venture into a money pit.

A good property attorney will be able to help you through each step of the construction process, from purchase to planning applications to licensing. It’s well worth choosing your representative carefully at the beginning as construction issues can range across a startling number of subjects:

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Zoning regulations

Local or national governments will often regulate land use by dividing it into zones intended for different purposes. Zones may include:

  • High-density housing, such as apartments
  • Low-density housing, such as single-family homes
  • Light industry
  • Heavy industry
  • Offices
  • Greenfield or greenbelt land
  • Agricultural use
  • Commercial

The actual zoning rules will usually be quite specific, and different areas that fall under the same broad category may have different building codes. For example, a historic city centre may be zoned as high-density housing and light commercial, the zoning law may even further stipulate that no building can be more than six stories high and/or that new buildings must use traditional materials. Further out of town, those restrictions may not apply.


Planning permission

Even if your plot is in the correct zone, it doesn’t automatically mean you have the right to build the property you’d like. In most areas, local or national governments will require some form of planning application before building is allowed.

Gaining planning permission usually requires submitting a detailed plan including architectural designs to local government. Even if planning permission is granted, it may come with restrictions with regard to building height, style or use.

The penalties for building without planning permission or building a structure that is different from the one for which permission was given may include:

  • The structure being torn down
  • Fines
  • Legal disputes and fees

Building codes


While zoning laws control what kind of property can be built on a plot, building codes specify the minimum acceptable quality of that building. The intention is usually to ensure that buildings are safe and do not impact negatively on their neighbors or neighborhood.

Building codes may be incredibly detailed, and may be enforced by a mandatory building survey or home inspection. They usually only apply to new buildings or renovation work, so if you’re happy living in an unaltered 15th century castle, you won’t have to change a thing.

Residential building codes

While building codes for apartments and family homes will vary from town to town, they are often concerned with:

  • Structural safety
  • Electrical, gas, plumbing and sewage
  • Material quality – may prohibit asbestos or lead-based paint, for example
  • Natural hazards – fire safety, tornado shelters, etc.
  • Proximity to neighbors or to the lot’s boundaries
  • Area covered by building
  • Height of property
  • Style of property
  • Energy efficiency
  • Environmental impact


Commercial and industrial building codes

As commercial and industrial building codes may cover anything from a coffee shop to a cowshed, they are often complex. As well as all the issues listed for residential building codes, they may cover:

  • Noise and other pollution
  • Waste disposal
  • Machine installation and maintenance
  • Fire escapes and other safety protocols
  • Specific hazards, such as flammable chemicals
  • Accessibility for people with disabilities
  • Animal welfare
  • Food preparation
  • Health and safety for workers and the public

Regulations concerning use


In addition to building codes, there may be regulations or licensing requirements for certain uses of a property. These may have an impact on construction requirements: for example, if it is the law that all shops must be wheelchair accessible, then anyone building a shop would do well to consider that at the design phase, even if it is not a part of the building code. Regulations concerning use will often affect:

  • Restaurants and any food preparation
  • Hotels, hostels and any overnight accommodation for the public
  • Rental properties
  • Multiple family accommodation such as an apartment block
  • Hospitals and nursing homes
  • Shops and business premises
  • Industrial and agricultural uses

Community issues: neighbors and the neighborhood


Residents and businesses in the area of a construction project will often be affected by it. Depending on the area, neighbors may have rights that affect your build, such as the right to quiet enjoyment of their property (limiting the hours you construction can take place).

Some neighbors may be willing to defend their rights in court, which can hold up development and be costly.  It’s worth getting on their good side where you can. Common issues include:

  • Access to their property
  • Access to your property across their property
  • Noise
  • Dust and debris
  • Accidental damage or disruption of services, such as closing a sidewalk or road

Your responsibility to the construction workers

While most construction workers are employed by a separate company that will be responsible for day-to-day management issues, as the site owner, you nonetheless have certain responsibilities. There may be legal issues for you if:

  • Workers do not have a safe working environment
  • Children or illegal workers are found working on your site
  • Workers are being mistreated or underpaid

Environmental protection


Rural or greenfield areas are getting rarer in many countries as the number of houses, businesses and roads grows. For this reason, many local and national governments have introduced laws to protect the remaining wild lands. These laws may be indicated by zoning (mentioned above), as well as by additional rules:

  • A limit to the percentage of the plot that can be covered by roads or buildings
  • No-build areas, such as by the side of a lake
  • A requirement to protect particular habitats, such as a stream
  • Limits to the number of trees which can be removed
  • Protection for particular species

Clearly, these environmental protection laws can limit the types of property you can build in certain areas, which can affect the profitability of a venture. It’s important to be aware of these issues before breaking ground, as mistakes can be costly.


2 comments on “Construction: Legal Issues

  1. Very interesting read about construction law! Good post!

    • PropertyFutures
      May 28, 2013

      Hi Laura, Thank you for the comment, if you have anything you would like to add from a dutch point of view please let me know.. James

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