Restrictive covenants can be written into deeds relatively easily when a property is sold. So, they're subject to the whims of eccentric property owners. For example, a man in South Carolina who sold off plots of his rural land in 1998 drew up restrictions forbidding anyone born north of the Mason-Dixon Line from buying them [source: Sullivan]. In England, restrictions can remain unobserved in deeds for hundreds of years, resulting in strange stipulations like a ban against making salted pork on a property [source: Snell].
Is It Still Enforceable?
The easiest way to elude the requirements of a restrictive covenant is to simply ignore it. Covenants can become unenforceable if they expire, if there is a history of the covenant being violated, or if there is no individual or group benefiting from them. But it's very important to make sure the covenant is void before violating it. Otherwise, you could face legal action.
One example of an unenforceable covenant is one that restricts a property to ownership by a certain race. Such covenants were widespread in the early 20th century, preventing African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Irish immigrants and other minorities from moving into primarily white neighborhoods [source: McKenzie]. Discriminatory deed restrictions were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer. However, because deed restrictions are so difficult to revise, these unenforceable discriminatory covenants are still intact in deeds across the country. For example, in 2009 the NAACP sued a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision because of racially discriminatory language contained in its list of deed restrictions [source: Shayne]. The subdivision later paid a $17,500 settlement to the NAACP [source: Rose].
In some cases, covenants are given a set expiration date. Any information about expiration is listed in the deed, or on file with the municipal government. If the covenant is expired, or will expire in the near future, a property owner can safely violate it without fear of legal ramifications [source: Rossi, et al].
Other times, covenants may be unenforceable because the original wording of the covenant is inexact. Judges will usually throw out a covenant if it does not lay out its terms in detail. Examples of overly vague covenants could include unexplained references to "standards of maintenance," or requirements that the home be similar to other homes in the neighborhood, without explaining how [source: Fambrough].
If restrictive covenants have no expiration date, and they do lay out specific, detailed requirements, they still may not be enforceable by law if there is a pattern of other property owners ignoring them or following them inconsistently. For example, if an entire neighborhood shares a common deed restriction that fences are not allowed, but half of the block has put in fences, the deed restriction probably won't hold up in court. Or, if several deeds in a neighborhood contain a restriction, but there are other properties in the same neighborhood with no such restriction, the restriction might not be enforceable [source: Fambrough].
If a deed restriction is not enforceable, you can choose to ignore it and take on the risk of a neighbor filing suit, or you can seek out a judge's ruling to have the covenant removed from the deed. Obtaining that ruling is easier when no one is actively enforcing the covenant. In neighborhoods where a homeowner's association actively polices violations, fighting restrictions is much more difficult. To find out how to remove restrictions from a deed, read on to the next page.