This article is no substitute for good, local legal advice but should provide you at least a range of things to look for if you’re a new purchaser or haven’t bought in many years.
Deeds: Most people never read the deed on their potential house, before buying. Some restrictions, if any, will be spelled out in this deed, and it should be made available to you from the listing agent, via your buyer agent or by getting it yourself at the local municipality.
Appraiser/Surveyor Discoveries: Often, it’s when a property changes hands that issues and problems arise. I helped a buyer purchase a property in which the neighbors—50 years ago–built a garage 2 feet over the property line on my buyer’s property. Because the seller had been in the house the entire time, the issue of construction permits, zoning, etc., didn’t come up 50 years ago, so no one knew. The new deed had to reflect the encroachment.
Rights of Ways and Easements: Many deeds for urban and suburban parcels of land have reference to the access needed and granted to utility companies. The ability to dig, work on, and repair lines that pass over your property are critical. Likewise, in most cities and towns, the local entity owns some part of the edge of your property for other utility uses, to trim trees from phone lines, etc. As well, many parcels of land close to lakes, streams and the like may have pedestrian path rights-of-way that have been granted for generations, or to certain people or local families. Read the deed. Always.
HOA: Home Owner Associations are not new, but they are definitely becoming more popular as people seek to control their neighbors’ actions, have group monies pooled to pay for common-interest expenses and the like. HOA’s are often referenced in deeds, but the details of the HOA’s are not in the deeds, but in separate documents. Most states require that potential purchases have a chance to review these documents within a certain time frame. Be sure you do.
Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions: These are sets of rules and regulations that restrict who can do what, when, and how, and under what conditions. Fencing, house colors, yard art, signage, noise, pets…there are thousands of things that can be restricted by CC&R’s. Even simple things like whether or not you can install a clothesline (and more and more neighborhoods are saying no).
Liens: When buying a property, be sure your agent goes to the place where property records are kept in your area and checks the title. Unpaid bills often mean that service providers will put a lien, or a legal claim on your property, which means these need to be paid off when then property changes hands. It’s more common that you think as owners have chosen to expand and improve, and then run into unexpected circumstances in which selling in a must and bills for work go unpaid.
There are a lot of intentional, unintentional, historical and legal reasons why others may have at least a partial claim on your property. Be sure you do your due diligence before buying!