Wait, What Do You Mean I Can’t Build This Rock Garden?

Image of a pretty flower growing in a rock garden outside.

Dealing With a Picky Deed Restriction

A recent news report on The Villages, a well-known retirement community that spans three Florida counties, discusses a resident who moved back up to Wisconsin after the death of her spouse. The focus of the news column? Her decision to sell her patio villa before correcting a violation of a deed restriction. And what did this resident do wrong? She used rocks in the landscaping around the patio. It seems rocks are OK as accents, but they are not OK as ground cover.

A supervisory board for her particular Community Development District (“CDD”) within The Villages held a meeting to discuss the matter. Then came the public hearing. The district officials looked at pictures of the offending rocks, put in place without the Architectural Review Committee’s say-so. The board chair commented on how the unit owner tried to make it look nice. But rules are rules, said the board. And the seller has to comply.

What Is the Architectural Review Committee?

The Architectural Review Committee exists to make sure all the units in a development have a certain look. At The Villages, the general rule is this:

Whether it is a pool addition, landscaping, painted driveway, porch enclosure, coloring of walks and/or driveways, arbors, pergolas, trellises or removal of trees that are greater than four (4) inches in diameter, it is necessary to submit a Modification/Alteration Form for approval.

What gives the board the right to make such a rule? The state. It’s the Florida Statutes that authorize Community Development Districts. The CDDs can establish, and enforce compliance with, deed restrictions. Also known as restrictive covenants, deed restrictions limit the allowable uses of a property.

And there’s a specific procedure to follow. Under Florida law, the board of supervisors can’t speak with residents about compliance with their Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions. It’s the Community Standards Department that receives complaints and follows up with violators.

So, a Community Standards rep asked the seller of the rocky patio villa to show up at a meeting. But she was out of state. In her absence, she was given 30 days to redo the landscaping, or a “series of fines” would ensue.

When Units Violate Deed Restrictions: What Buyers Should Know

Image of a nicely appointed outdoor patio area.

Let’s look further into this Florida development’s rules to illustrate the idea of deed restrictions. Here are some of the many deed compliance items at The Villages:

  • Units must be kept clean, painted, landscaped, and well maintained.
  • Waste must be placed in appropriate areas, concealed from public view.
  • Window AC units are not allowed.
  • Outside decorations may be barred by individual Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions (hint: read the declaration that applies to the specific development and unit you’re buying).
  • No commercial activity may take place that involves inventory, equipment, or visiting clientele.
  • Alterations to the exterior require architectural review in advance.

And there’s a larger set of community standards. Many are based on common sense and courtesy. Owners who neglect their units are subject to fines (and, as we now see, outing in the local newspaper). Unpaid fines for mold, abandoned cars, and out-of-control grass are becoming a problem at abandoned homes in The Villages—including units owned by dead people.

Deed restrictions should appear in a county’s online records index. But violations typically would not be noted in the county records, so a title search on behalf of the next buyer wouldn’t point out the issue. Some would be obvious to a buyer who physically tours a property. Others, like the infamous patio rocks, might not seem out of place. A buyer could only learn about such a violation through seller disclosure (or, perhaps, by reading the outings in the local newspaper).

When fines go unpaid, boards usually do place liens on units, clouding the titles. Some of these issues turn into court cases.

The lesson for buyers? Look carefully. Get a feel for the rules by perusing a community’s website. Know what’s in the individual Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions before putting a deposit down. In short, know your deed restrictions. Pets and even children can be restricted. Listing units on Airbnb and other rental platforms might be barred.

Unit owners need to think carefully about how their titles can be burdened if they don’t take the time to make their alterations according to the rules. If you buy into a community living arrangement, and you’re keen on a certain tech or green innovation, be sure it’s allowed — whether it’s an electric heat pump, solar panels, organic lawn care, a composting container, or… a rocky patio.

Picky and Annoying Rules?

Most deed restrictions are supposed to benefit a development. They set social, aesthetic, and safety expectations, and uphold all owners’ property values. Occasionally, though, rules can become bothersome or outdated.

While state laws enable community associations to make rules, state and even federal laws also limit these boards’ authority. Consider a notable example. Community associations can’t force you to stash your home satellite dish in a place where it doesn’t work, as per the Over the Air Reception Devices Rule established in the 1996 Telecommunications.

Furthermore, limits on local board authorities are becoming more important as residents insist on installing eco-aware improvements. In some states, condo associations have to follow laws for solar panels and even rainwater receptacles.

But other rules can chafe simply because they just seem so picky. “No signage” or “no lawn ornaments” can be carried to extremes by an overbearing board. And how is the line drawn between accent rocks and rocky ground cover? Some unit owners resign themselves to the board’s interpretation, knowing that a newer set of decision makers will eventually replace current boards. (Sure, an annoyed owner could run for a board position, but there’s far more to joining a board than addressing any particular pet peeve!)

If prompt change is needed, owners might band together, write letters, and speak at meetings. If the matter affects numerous owners, the board might review its policies or be compelled to put them up for a vote. Potential condo or community association residents should read the voting provisions in the controlling documents, and check these against the homeowners’ association laws in the state where they intend to buy.

Every Property Owner Follows Rules, on Some Level

Owners of single-unit houses deal with applications for permits when they renovate. They have to respect local ordinances and zoning rules. They, too, may find deed restrictions on their properties.

In the case of multi-unit housing, deed restrictions exist in elaborate rule sets. Some buyers might prefer to find a co-op, where they can live as part of a community yet become one of the decision makers. Co-op units can take more effort to sell, so there are trade-offs.  

In the final analysis, accepting the rules is part of what it takes to buy into a community. It’s just best to know how they’ll impact the property you want before you buy in.

Supporting References

Meta Minton for Villages-News.com: Wisconsin Widow Attempting to Sell Patio Villa in Violation of Deed Restriction (Nov. 19, 2021).

Meta Minton for Villages-News.com CDDs to discuss unpaid fines at homes in The Villages owned by dead people (Dec. 5, 2021).

Deeds.com: Homeowners’ Associations: An HOA Board’s Effect on Your Property (Jul. 22, 2020).

Deeds.com: Deed Restrictions: How They Impact Homeowners and Communities (Sep. 16, 2019).

Photo credits: manfredrichter, via Pixabay, and Randy Fath, via Unsplash.