Is there any way to get out of a restrictive covenant?

Restrictive covenants are designed to enforce standards in neighborhoods, and prevent things like this Pepto pink eyesore. See more home construction pictures.
© Laufenberg

That new pool in the backyard is going to be perfect. You paid the contractor the deposit last week, and they're scheduled to come break ground on Monday. You've even got a brand new bathing suit waiting in the dresser for the first hot day of summer. Then, you get a note in your mailbox from your neighborhood association. It turns out your property is subject to a restrictive covenant banning any pools on the premises. How can this be? You don't remember signing any covenant. Is this legal?

In short, yes. In the simplest terms, a restrictive covenant is an agreement between a property owner and other parties that limits the use of a property [source: American Bar Association]. The covenant is typically written into the deed, or referenced in the deed and kept on file with a county or municipal government, or with a private entity like a homeowner's association. In legal terms, restrictive covenants "run with the land." In other words, they apply to the property itself, and not the specific owner who makes the agreement. So, their limitations are legally binding for anybody who subsequently buys the property [source: American Bar Association].

Restrictive covenants date back to 18th- and 19th-century England. During the Industrial Revolution, private landowners used covenants to come to agreements about the use of land. A particular property's deed might contain a covenant preventing a factory from operating, for example, to protect surrounding farmers [source: McKenzie]. In the United States, deed restrictions initially served a purpose similar to those made in England. Before zoning laws became common, restrictive covenants were used to prevent livestock or machinery from encroaching on residential areas [source: Dehring].

By the 1920s, restrictive covenants began to serve the purpose they do today: enforcing standards of neatness and uniformity in more affluent neighborhoods [source: McKenzie]. These days, restrictive covenants are most commonly put into place by subdivisions, builders, developers or homeowner's associations (HOAs). Covenants are used to keep property values from falling by enforcing certain standards. Those standards can apply to landscaping, architecture, outbuildings, fences, paint color, building materials, driveways, and even things that might seem out of the bounds of a property deed, like how many vehicles a homeowner can keep parked in front of their house, and what type of pets they can own. Restrictive covenants can be very difficult to avoid, as residents of particularly finicky neighborhoods will often attest. But there are ways to circumvent the covenants or remove them from deeds outright. Read on to find out how.