If I Own a House, Can I Tear it Down?

Rather than further hijack [url=“http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=472134”]this thread*…

If I own a building free and clear, is it mine to do with as I please (within local zoning ordinances, of course)? Can I tear down a house just because I had a wild hair up my butt to do so? Do I need to have my city condemn any property that I want to tear down, or can I just hire a demolition crew and go for it (ignoring for the moment such things as demolition permits)?

DISCLAIMERS: I live in the US, so answer accordingly. You are not my lawyer, blah blah blah.

As you note, there are usually zoning conditions that will prevent tearing down a house, particularly if it’s close to the property line. Some jurisdictions’ zoning will let you do it if none of your neighbors object, however.

Another consideration is whether you have a mortgage or not. If the property is mortgaged, you almost certainly cannot demolish it under the terms of your agreement with the lender. I imagine that you might be able to negotiate such a mortgage at the outset, but usual agreements do not permit demolition of the mortgaged property.

if it doesn’t have any historical attachments, or possible historical attachments, and if tearing it down wouldn’t impact any buildings around it or attached to it; you probably could.

I don’t think this is true-- do you have a cite?

There are restrictions in some places that try to preserve historical buildings, but your average everyday house wouldn’t fall under those restrictions. In fact, I live in a historically designated area, and there are still houses torn down all the time-- 5 or so in a few block radius of my house within the last few years.

Sure, knock yourself out. People ignore demo permits and historical designations all the time as well. The fines, etc., are sometimes not enough to disuade them, and depending on the jurisdiction, enforcement can be lax (especially in times of stressed municipal budgets).

Well, you’d need a demolition permit in some places.

A note about historical buildings. These designations have different degrees of protection. In many cases, the designation only makes the property eligible for some funding or other considerations, but offers zero protection against demolition or sale by the owner.

As for tearing down your own house, it’s not a good idea to get crosswise of local environmental agencies. I would make sure you abate any problems before renting a wrecking ball.

Check with your municipality’s building codes. Yes, you can, but not without an awful lot of paperwork. There are safety, health, noise, and zoning issues involved. The neighbors have to have their says. The first question the gummit will ask you is “why?” The second question is “how?”

A quick Google of “property line” demolition zoning returned over 200,000 hits. From the first page:

Tyler, Texas demolition permit application which notes that if demolition is to occur within certain distances of the property line, notices must be sent in advance to the adjoining neighbors.

There are thousands of examples of zoning laws that require buildings to be placed a certain distance from the property lines there, but I’m afraid I don’t have time to dig through more to find examples that regard demolition.

My original assertion came from having been through the process here in Canada a few times, including appearances before Zoning Committees to have exemptions granted such demolition provisions.

The term “buying a tear down” is already in use for the idea of buying a house with the intent of demolishing it because you want to build a new house on the property.

In my experience (admittedly limited to a few cases) the permit is for the purpose of ensuring that the impact of the demolition on neighbors and the environment is not unreasonable - it isn’t an opportunity for the town to say “Sorry, but we direct you to repair rather than raze that building.”

I’m fully prepared to believe this can vary a lot by location.

In Atlanta, one would have to obtain a permit first. This is not particularly difficult to accomplish. A site plan & survey will get you as far as you want to go.

Not always. They get their say here if you want to cut down a tree, but have no say if you want to demo a house.

Depending on the age of the house, I see potential problems with engaging in demo without proper permitting.

Electric and gas utilities need to be properly disconnected.
If public sanitary sewer exists, capping is necessary to prevent release of sewer gas.
If site septic exists, the tank may need to be pumped and excavated/removed. DEP permitting may be involved.
If a buried oil tank exists, it may need to be pumped and excavated/removed. DEP permitting may be involved.
If public water exists, proper disconnection is required to avoid backflow and possible contamination of the municipal system.
If the house was built prior to 1978, it is considered target housing with respect to possible inclusion of lead based paint. Demo will create dust which could potentially impact neighbors, contaminate storm water runoff, and so forth. DEP permitting may be involved.
If the house was sided with asbestos shingles, floors covered with vinyl asbestos tile, has a hydronic heating system with asbestos insulation, or has roofing shingles which may be asbestos bearing, special handling is required for management of hazardous waste. DEP permitting may be involved.
Nearby streams or other waterways may require silt fences or other protection from runoff. DEP permitting may be involved.

Aren’t you glad you asked? :smiley:

All of the above, though a lot of it can be accomplished on your own in some areas. The utilities are more than happy to come out and disconnect, usually. Silt fence & asbestos (more specifically, a letter certifying there was none) were the two things I had to get taken care of. I could’ve gotten away without the silt fence if I had taken care of erosion control in another way (replant grass or natural area), but I was about to begin construction. I did not want to piss off the neighbors.

If watching This Old House has taught me one thing, it’s to never, ever, EVER buy a house in a historic district. In Massachusetts, if you own a house in a historic district, you need to get permission from the local historic district commission if you want to do anything which affects the external appearance of your home. And they mean anything from a major addition down to just repainting the trim. The TOH guys hate dealing with those commissions. Some of them are reasonable, but some can be real Nazi bastards.

Local laws vary. They get their say here for any structural changes whatsoever, including demolition.

Local laws do vary, but I’ve NEVER heard of demolition of an existing structure violating zoning ordinances unless the structure is within a historic preservation district. In that case, it can still be done but it may require approval from the local board or commission charged with historic preservation. That’s the only time when adjacent property owners may be notified. In all other cases, they have no say in the matter.

Could you please cite this law? I’m still very interested in reading an actual law that says “your neighbors can force you to leave your house up even if you want to tear it down.”

I’m well aware that neighbors are usually required to be notified of the date of a demolition some days in advance, and I’m well aware that after they are notified they have the first amendment right to whine and moan about it, but what I’m looking for is “according to section 5, paragraph 9 of the City of Whoville Code of Ordinances, if your neighbor says he doesn’t want you to demolish the house you aren’t allowed to.”

On preview, I agree with plnnr and I’ve looked at an awful lot of different zoning ordinances.

That’s pretty much what I was saying. I just wanted to point out that it isn’t necessarily true that neighbors will have to have their say.