How Long Are Deed Restrictions Enforceable?

Deed restrictions may require that you keep your yard looking good.

Deed restrictions may require that you keep your yard looking good.

Sometimes a homeowner's house isn't his castle. Deed restrictions are legal requirements that mandate, for example, you paint your house in primary colors, build in a certain style or keep your yard free of clutter. Usually, the developer or the homeowners association imposes them to maintain the neighborhood's look and keep property values high. Unless there's a written expiration date, the restrictions don't expire automatically. You may be able to void them, however.

Read the Rules

The first step is to read the restrictions, which may be in your homeowners association covenants, or on file in the county registry of deeds. Find out whether the restrictions have an expiration date, or require that the homeowners association vote to renew them. Some covenants also allow you to secure a waiver. For example, you may be eligible for an exception if everyone on your street signs a waiver form OK'ing your plans.

Illegal Covenants

Sometimes you can invalidate a deed restriction by showing it's not a legal requirement. In the 20th century, it was common for covenants to block an owner from selling to nonwhites, for example, but changes in the law made those covenants illegal and unenforceable. Courts also have thrown out covenants that say owners can't sell to seniors or to families with more than two children. Invalidating the restrictions requires going to court and getting a judge to rule in your favor.

Vague Standards

If the restrictions aren't clear and precise, that may give you another way out. A covenant that requires, say, that you maintain the "quality" of the neighborhood is a vague standard. If you haven't violated a specific restriction, a judge might give you the benefit of the doubt. However, simply disagreeing with your association about how to interpret the rules isn't enough. The rules have to be ambiguous enough that there's more than one reasonable interpretation.

Out of Date

Deed restrictions that worked once upon a time may not be binding today. It's harder to argue a restriction is valid if half the neighborhood already has broken it without penalty. Suppose the homeowners association says you can't build a garden shed, but it has given multiple owners a waiver for similar projects. You can claim the neighborhood has changed, and there's no longer a point to the ban. If it's only a couple of waivers, you may be out of luck.


About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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