If you move into a planned community where a homeowners' association makes the rules, you may not be able to put up a chain link fence or a television antenna. Even the erecting of a bird house may cause a flap.
For buyers of town houses and detached homes in such communities have to give up some autonomy over what they can do with their property. Many must pay annual or monthly fees to maintain land they don't even own.
This sacrifice is not without some benefits. Nearby open space can enhance the value of a home, and rules governing what owners can do with their property can also protect them from neighbors who want to raise chickens and cows. But buyers should be aware of what they're getting into.
In town house communities, private streets or parking areas, playgrounds and swimming pools are some of the extra benefits and obligations.
The extras that go along with a single-family home, however, are not as obvious, and you will have to do some investigating to find out all the details.
The first question to ask is whether there are any property restrictions. These usually take the form of a legal document, called the declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions, which is filed on the entire subdivision.
Sometimes, however, there are restrictions in each individual deed. Ask to see a copy of the declaration and a typical deed before you sign anything. There is no cooling-off period or cancellation right if you find something you don't like in these documents after you sign the sales contract.
The restrictions may be absolutes, such as "no drilling for oil," "no chain link fences" and "no TV antennas," or these restrictions may state broadly that you cannot make any change in the appearance of your property without the approval of the homeowners association.
Broadly stated restrictions warrant more investigation. If you want to repaint your front door, put up a fence, or build a patio, you should not be at the mercy of whimsical or arbitrary strangers. Even a storm door, basketball backboard, flagpole or birdhouse can be subject to someone else's aesthetic judgment.
Ask to see the procedures for the homeowners association's review of applications for architectural change; check to see if your ideas and designs for improvement will get a fair hearing. Also ask to see the criteria for judging applications to be sure that your request for change will be evaluated according to objective professional standards.
If the developer, his lawyer or his architect have not given thought to these safeguards, it may indicate that other aspects of the design of your home and community have not been thoroughly considered.
Check for any other restrictions. Some restrictions prohibit repairing your car in the driveway. Others prohibit breeding pets or keeping them for commercial purposes.If you run a TV repair business, you might not be able to bring sets home for repair.
And if you have already invested thousands of dollars in a boat, trailer or motor home, be sure you are allowed to park it in your driveway or back yard. There may even be a restriction against hanging laundry out to dry.
The second major area to investigate is what you really own. Look at the survey for the home and lot you want to buy and check for easements. In the front of your property there may be easements or dedicated rights of way for future street widening, sidewalks, or sewer lines. Along your side or rear property lines, the developer may have reserved an easement for a walk-way or bridle path.
Neighboring owners may have a view easement across your property, which means you cannot add a second story to your house, build a side yard fence or plant tall trees or shrubs that would interfere with your neighbor's view of the lake, river or other scenic attraction.
In order to save building needless, expensive public roads, developers often plat lots shaped like the state of Oklahoma (or with a little imagination, Maryland). Not surprisingly, these lots are called panhandle lots. The handle is the driveway leading to your house, which sits on the larger portion of the lot.
In many cases you share the driveway with the houses around you. If you are considering buying a house on one of these lots, be sure you have a right to use the portion of the driveway which you don't own. In addition, be sure there is a fair system for removing snow, agreeing when repairs should be made, and dividing up the cost of repairs.
The third area to investigate is what you do not own. With panhandle lots, there should be restrictions on where the other houses are sited. You do not want to step out on your front porch and look at someone else's messy backyard. Similarly, if your lot nestles into the crook of another panhandle, you want adequate screening.
Douglas Kleine is a volunteer and consultant for homeowners' associations.