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Ask McEnearney: How can I find out what additions I am able to make to a property before purchasing?

This week’s Q&A column is sponsored and written by Hope Peele of The Peele Group and McEnearney Associates Realtors®, the leading real estate firm in Alexandria. To learn more about this article and relevant Alexandria market news, contact The Peele Group at 703-244-6115 or email [email protected]. You may also submit your questions to McEnearney Associates via email for response in future columns.

Question: How can I find out what additions I am able to make to a property, before purchasing?

Answer: Many buyers I am working with lately are looking at the future potential of homes and considering properties that they will add additions to — either before they move in or in their long-term plans.

Some lots have the space for an entire extra room or would benefit from a large deck off the back, and others have the potential to be bumped up a level. Even smaller adjustments, like a new fence, garage, or shed can be important to know about before purchasing a home.

The first step in finding out about a potential add-on is to have your Realtor call the listing agent. They will be able to tell you if the seller has ever considered something like this before — sometimes, if you’re lucky, they will have plans from a builder to give you an idea of what could be done. Even if the seller has considered this option before and found that it isn’t possible, that is valuable information.

More commonly, they will have a survey from when they purchased the home. This is a document that shows where the boundaries of the property are, as well as measurements of structures, such as sheds or patios. If there is an existing fence, it will tell you which property it is on and which home it belongs to.

Survey example courtesy of

If the seller does not have a survey, a buyer has the option to have the settlement company order a survey to be completed before they purchase the property. In Washington, D.C., a location survey is required in order to issue title insurance. In Maryland and Virginia, the survey is optional but highly recommended. A buyer can only order a survey once the home is under contract, therefore, this information is not available before making an offer unless the seller already has it.

If the home is in a community with a Home Owners Association (HOA), there will be guidelines in place that clearly state what can and cannot be added to the property. If other homes in the neighborhood have additions or updates similar to what you would like to do, it is very likely that you will also be able to add them to your home, but there are no guarantees. It is still very important to look over all the HOA documents, and if the update that you want is very important to you, a call to the management company or HOA president is recommended, before making an offer.

For a home in an HOA, once a home is under contract, the buyer will have a period (typically 3 days) in which they are given the opportunity to review the HOA documents and then void the contract if they see something they don’t like. Unfortunately, HOA documents are usually not available until you are under contract, so if a buyer has a specific question before making an offer, their Realtor can sometimes get answers from the listing agent.

Even if the home is not in an HOA, there will likely be city or county guidelines for what can be built on a property. For example, I added a new, larger deck to my home a few years after I bought it. I had to submit my property survey to the city, along with architectural plans, before I could begin construction. The city even provides a manual with specifications on what materials to use, and how things must be built to adhere to code.

Whether you are making updates to the exterior or interior of your home, you should always check if you need to get permits from the city or county. Many contractors will do this for you, however, a buyer should still familiarize themselves with what is even possible in the code ordinance for where they live. For example, although I was permitted to build a larger deck, due to set-back requirements, I would not have been allowed to have it wrap entirely around my duplex in Del Ray!

If you live in a historic district, like Old Town, there can also sometimes be more strict regulations in order to maintain the historic integrity of the community. You should check the Board of Architectural Review website, as your plans will need to be submitted for approval. And if your decision on whether to buy the home depends on it, call the city and ask how likely it is that your modification would be approved, then pick a contractor that is experienced with the jurisdiction and requirements for approval. I recommend that you always choose a contractor that is familiar with the jurisdiction.

Finally, it can be a good idea to get a general idea of what the cost will be. Your Realtor likely has a great contractor who they can refer to you for a general estimate. Even if you don’t want to make major renovations — maybe just fresh paint, or new carpet — an estimate can be good help in deciding how much you are able to do if you purchase a specific house.

Whether you are thinking about making changes to your home in the long term, or the near future, your Realtor can help you evaluate what is feasible for your situation! I have worked with countless buyers who go through this process and would be happy to help you create your vision for the perfect home!

Hope Peele is a licensed real estate agent with McEnearney Associates, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. She grew up in Old Town and currently lives in Del Ray. As a partner with The Peele Group, Hope is dedicated to guiding her clients successfully through the many faceted process of buying or selling a home. Contact Hope at 703-244-6115.

If you would like a question answered in our weekly column or to set up an appointment with one of our Associates, please email: [email protected] or call 703.549.9292.

McEnearney Associates Realtors®, 109 S. Pitt Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Equal Housing Opportunity. #WeAreAlexandria

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