Accessorizing your Violin and Your Real Estate

Like many violinists, I have a weakness for accessories. Not fashion accessories like scarves and handbags, but violin accessories like mutes,[1] shoulder rests[2], rosin[3], humidifiers, metronomes[4], and chinrests.[5]

I have a drawer full of different styles and sizes of chinrests and shoulder rests. I have tried dozens of different combinations of chinrest and shoulder rest in search of the perfect set up for my violin. I have summer rosin and winter rosin, and I have tried rosin supposed designed to match the type of strings on my instrument. I have metal and rubber practice mutes.

As winter heating season approaches, I think about which humidification system will best protect the wood in my violin from cracking. And I still haven’t decided whether I prefer a traditional flannel or the more modern microfiber cleaning cloth.

What are Accessory Structures?

Real estate can have “accessories” too. A homeowner may construct a gazebo or storage shed to “accessorize” their home. Owners of an apartment complex might construct carports or a swimming pool. A restaurant may construct an outside covered pavilion for summer outdoor dining. A gas station might have a separate building housing a car wash. A picnic pavilion might be an accessory structure for a country club.

The legal term for these real estate accessory uses is “accessory structures.” Under most zoning laws, an accessory structure must meet two requirements:

1.      It must be on the same parcel of land as the primary structure and,

2.      Its use must be incidental to the use of the primary structure.

Although being on the same parcel of land is not usually an issue, it is important to check. My own home is a good example, because even though it does not look like it, I own two parcels of real estate. My house, front yard and about half of the back yard sit on one parcel, and the remainder of the back yard is a separate parcel. This could be a problem if I wanted to construct a storage shed on the part of the back yard that is on a different parcel than the house.

However, more frequently, the concern with accessory structures is whether their use is incidental to the use of the primary structure. Even though a car wash might be an accessory structure for a gas station, it would not be so for a personal residence. A picnic pavilion that is an accessory structure for the country club would not be an accessory structure for a gas station nor would a home would be an accessory structure for a retail store parcel.

What Rules Apply to Accessory Structures?

In addition to meeting the requirements for an accessory structure, the structure, itself, must meet zoning requirements. That includes requirements for building height, coverage area (the amount of the land that is covered with structures), and setbacks (the distance from property lines). It also is common to prohibit accessory structures in front yards.

Recently, a family in San Jose, California garnered national news for code violations after constructing a $22,000 tree house. The elaborate tree house rose to a height of eighteen feet from the ground, six feet higher than the twelve-foot height limit in the area.[6]

Several years ago, an Ohio homeowner faced a fine after constructing a “zombie nativity” scene in her front yard. The government said that the nativity violated zoning laws. The nativity, which included construction of a shelter, was considered to be an illegal accessory structure in the front yard.[7]

Accessory dwelling units (also called “granny suites”) recently have recently become a popular construction for single-family property owners. These small, one-unit apartment structures enable homeowners to have loved ones nearby or to supplement income with a small rental unit.

Traditionally, an apartment is not an accessory use to a single-family dwelling. But some locales are relaxing rules to allow granny suites.[8] Even where accessory dwelling units are permissible accessory uses for residences, they likely will be subject to other zoning requirements, including setback and height requirements.

Building codes also are likely to apply to accessory uses. For instance, in Montgomery County, Maryland, where my office is located, a permit is required to build a storage shed on real estate. If an old shed is being replaced, then a demolition permit also is required. If there is any electrical wiring in the shed, an electrical permit is necessary.[9]

For safety purposes, all sheds are inspected after installation to assure that they are anchored to withstand the required wind load. Larger sheds must have footings and floors that meet building code requirements.

Accessory Structure Best Practices

Before constructing anything new on a real estate parcel, the owner should check both zoning and building code requirements. For simple, do-it-yourself projects, such as installation of a pre-fabricated storage shed, the owner might be able to check themselves to identify the zoning and building code requirements. In some locales, this may require checking with two different government offices.

For more complicated projects, owners should consult with a licensed contractor experienced in the area. The contract with the contractor should obligate the contractor to obtain all legally required permits and inspections. The owner should require that the contractor provide confirmation that permits have been obtained and inspections completed.

It may seem like an unnecessary expense or hassle when the accessory structure is being constructed. However, complying with legal requirements will preserve the value of the real estate. If the property is sold, prospective buyers or their mortgage lenders are likely to check to confirm that required permits and inspections were obtained. If not, the value of the real estate could be impacted.

Also, a property owner may incur liability if someone were injured by a structure constructed without a permit. Assuring that all accessory structures are properly permitted and built in accordance with codes makes a successful liability lawsuit less likely.

Finally, failure to comply with zoning and building requirements can result in citations and fines, as experienced by the real estate owners who constructed a treehouse and zombie nativity in the examples provided.

Accessorizing in Style

There are no written rules on how to “accessorize” a violin with shoulder rests and chinrests. However, there are laws and regulations which provide guidance on how to “accessorize” real estate. Real estate owners who understand and comply with those laws and regulations should be able to minimize liability and avoid unexpected surprises.


© 2018 by Elizabeth A. Whitman

DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice to any person. No one should take any action regarding the information contained in this blog without first seeking the advice of an attorney. Neither reading this blog nor communication with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or Elizabeth A. Whitman creates an attorney-client relationship. No attorney-client relationship will exist with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or any attorney affiliated with it unless and until a written contract is signed by all parties and any conditions in such contract are fully satisfied.


[1] A mute softens the sound of a violin. Practice mutes soften the sound so it is difficult to hear at all. Practice mutes are typically used when a violinist needs to practice in an environment, such as a hotel room, where it would be disruptive to hear the violin at full volume. Metal practice mutes generally are thought to produce the greatest amount of muting, but they are heavy and add weight to the violin. Because of their weight, if displaced, they can cause significant damage to a violin. Many violinists prefer lighter, but safer rubber practice mutes, as a result.

[2] A shoulder rest fastens to the back of the violin and helps to fill the space between the chin and the chest or shoulder, where the violin rests. Violinists are sharply divided on whether to use a shoulder rest. Opponents say that they dull the sound of the violin, while proponents claim it keeps the violin still, making for a better overall performance. There are dozens of styles of shoulder rests in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and materials.

[3] Rosin comes from tree resin. It is put on the bow hair to create friction with the string. Without rosin, a bow makes little to no sound when drawn across violin strings.

[4] A metronome plays periodic beeping sounds to help musicians play with an even beat.

[5] A chinrest sits on top of the violin and is named, because violinists in theory put their chins on it. Modern violinists consistently use chinrests, but they were not popular in the early days of the violin. Therefore, some Baroque music specialists choose not to use them. Like shoulder rests, chinrests come in dozens of different sizes and shapes, with numerous different means of attaching to the violin. Most of the better chinrests are made from various types of wood, but chinrests also can be made from plastic and other materials.

[6] See Amanda del Castillo, City of San Jose: Family tree house built too high, violates city code, ABC News July 3, 2018.

[7] See Katie Rogers, Zombie-Themed Nativity Scene Causes a Stir in Ohio, The New York Times December 7, 2015.

[8] See Gennady Sheyner, New accessory-dwelling units law brings hope, confusion, Palo Alto Weekly January 15, 2018.

[9] See Accessory Buildings and Sheds.