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The Commonwealth Blog

Monday, April 17, 2017

Want to Renovate? Check Deed Restrictions First

You’ve found a home you like at the right price in a great neighborhood, but it’s missing something. Maybe you want to extend the patio for entertaining or add a garage to protect your car from the elements. You tell yourself that it’s not a big deal that the home is missing one or two of the features you’re looking for because you can just renovate after you close.

Unfortunately, you may not be able to leap into those major renovation projects. That’s because some properties come with deed restrictions that limit the changes you can make to a home and the land it sits on.

What Are Deed Restrictions?

Deed restrictions, also referred to as restrictive covenants, are rules that tell a homeowner what they can and can’t do to their property. These rules are written into the real property records of the county. Deed restrictions go with the land, which means they don’t expire just because the property changes hands.

The goal of deed restrictions is to preserve the character of the neighborhood. These restrictions usually cover things that aren’t covered by local zoning regulations. For example, a deed restriction for a lot in Cape Cod might prevent the owner from building a three-story house if the home would block the neighbors’ view of the ocean. A deed restriction in a neighborhood full of traditional Colonial homes might prevent a homeowner from painting their house a bright color that clashes with the surrounding properties. Other common deed restrictions include limitations on:

  • The number of bedrooms (if the septic system on the property can’t support extra bedrooms)
  • The construction of a pool, shed, detached workshop, or second garage
  • The color, style, and construction materials used in exterior renovations
  • Extending a deck, patio, or balcony
  • Cutting down or planting trees on the property

How Do You Find Out About Deed Restrictions?

Since deed restrictions can curtail the best-laid plans of homeowners, it’s best to find out if a home you want to buy has any deed restrictions before you go through with the purchase. In Massachusetts, you can access a copy of a home’s deed by visiting your local Registry of Deeds Office. Fortunately, there’s an online directory that makes it easy to locate the registry office for your town.

You can also ask the current property owner and their real estate agent to provide you with information about deed restrictions. The home seller should already have access to the deed, as they will need it to transfer ownership of their property.

What If You Want to Change Deed Restrictions?

Maybe you’ve just discovered that the home you purchased comes with a deed restriction that gets in the way of your planned renovations. What now?

Your first step should be to check your deed carefully to see if the restriction has expired (most restrictive covenants only have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years if they’re not renewed). If it hasn’t, you should check whether there are provisions for changing it. For example, you may be able to violate the restrictive covenant if you get permission from all your neighbors. If the restriction hasn’t expired and there aren’t clear provisions for changing it, you may be able to get a judge to invalidate it. The judge may invalidate the deed restriction if:

  • The language is vague and unclear
  • Following the restriction is impractical
  • The restriction conflicts with local zoning laws
  • The restriction is outdated and has been widely disregarded by neighbors

The best way to avoid or change deed restrictions is to educate yourself on the subject. If you have more questions about deed restrictions during your home search, talk to a knowledgeable CENTURY 21 Commonwealth agent.

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