JPLDesigns/Getty Images

If you’re buying a home or vacant land on which you plan to build, then deed restrictions should be on your radar. These pesky regulations restrict the way land can be used, as well as what you can build on it and what activities you can partake in while on the premises.

Deed restrictions typically stem from homeowners’ associations or historical agreements between neighbors or community members. But regardless of their source, they can regulate your home’s height, size, cars and pets you’re allowed to have, the colors of your property’s features, construction materials, and a whole lot more.

Before you take out a mortgage or purchase a property outright, it’s important to know what deed restrictions you might be up against, as these can impact your options once you move into the home. If you violate the restrictions, you could owe a fee, monetary damages, or be held liable in court.

Where to find your property’s deed restrictions

If you want to uncover any possible deed restrictions on a property or lot you’re considering buying, you can go to:

  • Your real estate agent. They can pull property records and search for any deed restrictions that have been noted in previous listings.
  • The builder or developer. If the property is in a planned community, the developer or builder likely has access to any deed restrictions pertaining to the home.
  • Your local clerk’s office. The county or municipal clerk can pull historical property records to look for any restrictions. You may be able to search public property records on the clerk’s website. The local planning department that initially approved the community’s development may also have the information.
  • Your title company. Deed restrictions often come up during title searches, though not all title companies will disclose them — particularly if they’re older. You may need to specifically request a search for deed restrictions just in case.

You can also check with the neighborhood’s homeowner’s association, as they may have records of any deed restrictions pertaining to your property. (Keep in mind, your HOA may have other rules you need to abide by, so read your HOA documents carefully.)

Deed restrictions vs. HOAs

Both deed restrictions and HOA rules can dictate the use of your property. The main difference is that deed restrictions are attached to the land itself, while HOA rules pertain to the property’s location within a certain community.

Another difference is their tenure. Deed restrictions may expire after a certain time period or need judicial proceedings in order to change. HOA rules, on the other hand, can be changed with a simple vote from the HOA board. Thus, HOA rules tend to evolve more than deed restrictions do.

At the end of the day, a property can be subject to both deed restrictions and HOA rules simultaneously (and in the suburbs, they often are.)

Types of deed restrictions

The list of possible deed restrictions you might encounter is long and extensive. Deed restrictions can regulate just about anything on your property, including the structures, age limits and number of occupants, and activities going on there.

Here are just a few of the more common deed restrictions homeowners deal with:

  • Structure and foliage height. Many deed restrictions will forbid you from obstructing a neighbor’s view with too-tall trees or adding an extra story to your house.
  • Size of the home. Deed restrictions often limit the number of bedrooms and square footage you can have (usually to prevent overwhelming local sewage capacity).
  • Vehicles on the property. You might only be allowed a certain number of vehicles, or they might need to be of a certain type or condition (i.e., no boats, commercial vehicles, etc.).
  • Fences. Deed restrictions often dictate the type of fences allowed (no chain link ones, for example), as well as how high fencing can go.
  • Animals. You may only be allowed certain types or breeds of animals on your property. Many deed restrictions will prohibit livestock and wild animals.
  • Structures and installations. A deed restriction might regulate what additional structures you can add (and in which locations) to the property (garages, sheds, etc.) or add-on amenities like pools, gazebos, basketball hoops, or hot tubs.
  • Property use. Certain activities and businesses are often barred via deed restriction. This is usually to prevent added foot and car traffic in a residential area.
  • Colors and materials. This is more common in HOA rules, but some deed restrictions may limit the colors and types of materials you can use on the exterior of your home. This is usually to keep a consistent look throughout the community and to help maintain home values.

How to change your deed restrictions

Deed restrictions are harder to change than HOA rules, but it’s not impossible. If you’ve already purchased a home, there may come a time when you want to fight a deed restriction in order to make a change on your property. If you’re considering a house with a deed restriction, you may be able to get the restriction removed before making your purchase.

Here’s what the process looks like:

  • Get a copy of the covenant detailing the deed restriction. You’ll need to go to the courthouse or your county clerk’s office for this.
  • Read the covenant for details. Many times, there will be an expiration date or, at the very least, information on how the restriction can be altered or removed.
  • Contact the governing body. If the restriction was set by the city, a community association, or an HOA, reach out to the organization directly. You may be able to violate certain restrictions as long as you have pre-approval. (You might need approval from your neighbors, too.)
  • Get consent. If there’s not a governing body and the deed restriction is instead with a neighbor or another party, you’ll need to get their consent for release from the agreement (it’s usually via a form called a Restriction Release). Once everyone has signed the Restriction Release, you can file a copy with the county. You might need a notary to make it official.
  • Take it to court. If the deed restriction seems no longer applicable, discriminatory, illegal, or irrelevant to current conditions (i.e., really outdated), a judge may be willing to void it.

Deed restrictions truly run the gamut, and they can severely limit the options you have on a property. Understanding what deed restrictions are in place is critical if you’re considering buying a home or piece of land.

If you’re unable to remove a deed restriction, make sure you think long and hard about purchasing the property. Are you willing to abide by the restrictions, or would another property be a better option? Not all homes will come with deed restrictions, so be sure to weigh all your options.