Seeking insight on zoning in Philadelphia

8 Replies

I am in the process of searching for my first investment property. I do not know much about zoning. I am currently looking at a property that is set up like a duplex, without the zoning being changed accordingly. This property was renovated and rehabilitated within the past 2 years. Is the fact that it's not zoned as a duplex a big problem? Is it reasonable for me to use that fact as a negotiating point to get them to zone it properly before I consider investing in it? What have some of you experienced as a result of owning rental property that wasn't zoned correctly?

How do you know that it's not zoned as a duplex? I think that it's totally reasonable to get a zoning contingency when you make an offer like this. Might worry about the renovation permits if they were issued and L&I didn't recognize that it was a duplex. Getting the proper variance can be easy or difficult depending on where the property is. If you want to PM or post the address I can look at what zoning documents are there and try to help some more.

@Jonathan Gomez Call the Planning Dept, give them the address and ask them to tell you what the current zoning designation is and if it permits a duplex. Then call the Bldg. Dept, give them the address and ask them if permits were pulled for the second unit. If no permits were pulled, then the added unit would be illegal. If the zoning does allow for the second unit, but there are no permits, the Bldg. Dept will likely charge you double the fees because the work was done without permits. Is the zoning does not allow for the second unit, it will have to be removed.

@Tim Butters What does L&I mean? 

I would like to refrain from giving the address to anyone, but I do appreciate your intent to help. Also, the description of the property says it was not zoned for a duplex. Oddly, the zoning description stated it was RM1, which allows for duplexes, so I am just confused at this point because of my lack of understanding of zoning. 

@Matt Everling Thank you for identifying the process to obtain more knowledge about the property. This may help me with investment opportunities in the future. 

L&I is Philadelphia License and Inspections Department

You can look up what you can do by-right in RM-1 using this zoning reference guide

Use and enter in the property address. Go to the 'License & Inspections' section and see if there are any zoning permit documents related to the use of the property. You can also look up neighboring properties to see if they have any use variances. The 'Zoning' section will tell you who the registered community organization would be if you needed a variance.

Even from there if there is no use variance many times the ZBA would consider that the conversion of a long standing "illegal" duplex would be a significant hardship for the owner and grant the use. This can also depend on the neighbors and RCO involved with the variance.

@Tim Butters Is it better to have a use variance? 

The property is zoned as RM-1. Several blocks in that area are in that same category according to the zoning map. 

This brings into question how people perform their due diligence. I think I will start a new thread to get input other investor's due diligence process. Thank you for showing me a bit about zoning. 

@Jonathan Gomez I think you need to first start with a better agent.  Calling would likely be the answer in every city but Philadelphia.  You will likely be on the phone too long and get a lot of wrong answers.  If it is RM-1 already and it meets the criteria for a duplex based on the RM-1 rules then you should have a legal duplex.  If it does not meet the rules you have to go through zoning which is a long costly process.

@Jonathan Gomez

Agree wit @Irfan Raza about the agent and calling L&I

Your agent should be able to point you in the right direction with all of our questions. 

As @Tim Butters mentioned, do you research online at and you can find a lot of useful info there. Also you can search for business licenses (as rental license) by location in and if they had a license fro a 2-unit dwelling you will see it in the system. 

Cheers, Yuriy