Most transfers of title to real estate are made subject to "easement and restrictions of record, if any." Easements may be varied, but usually involve access rights for utilities, or perhaps a driveway easement to share a driveway with a neighbor. But what about those restrictions? What are they?
Most restrictions can be found as covenants contained in a deed, in a declaration of restrictions or on a legend on a filed map. Restrictions generally limit or otherwise affect how a property owner can use their lands. Perhaps they involve the distance a structure must be set back from a property line or other structure (unrelated to zoning setback requirements). Or, maybe they involve how a structure may be used (unrelated to land use ordinances). Or, they might even limit who can use the property. Some restrictions are referred to as nuisance restrictions because they prohibit the use of the property conveyed for any noxious or offensive purpose. Restrictions against public policy, such as those restricting use due to race, national origin, etc., are not enforceable.
Restrictions set forth in a deed transferring title, or those appearing in earlier deeds in the chain of title, are binding on a property owner. This is one of many reasons to perform a title search when buying a property – to determine if there are any recorded restrictions which will affect an owner’s use of the property.
Some of the more common restrictions involve a neighborhood plan which may impose limitations on the size and dimensions of lots, the location of structures on a lot or how the structures may be used. Many of these types of restrictions were originally imposed prior to the existence of local zoning ordinances. Thus, a land owner could impose his/her own restrictions on a tract which was to be developed. Sometimes, associations were created with authority to approve or disapprove new structures on the lots. In more recent times, developers impose restrictions on subdivisions which are meant to supplement existing zoning requirements, often imposing more extensive restrictions in an effort to preserve a particular neighborhood scheme as envisioned by the developer.
Restrictions can also be imposed by property owners conveying only a portion of their property who want to benefit or protect the remaining portion they are retaining. For example, a property owner who subdivides off part of his/her property may want to prevent anyone owning the newly created lot from building within a certain distance (which may exceed the local zoning requirements) from their remaining lot. The subdividing property owner may also want to impose a restriction to retain the right to approve any new structure on the new lot.
Unless a restriction is deemed to be personal to the grantor imposing it, or there is a specified termination date, the passage of time alone will not serve to terminate a restriction.
As a result of the binding characteristics of restrictions, it is important to review the back title to a property being purchased to ascertain what, if any, restrictions may affect ownership rights to the property.