Fall and winter holidays are perfect for creating an elaborate outdoor scene – whether you're planning to recreate "Frankenstein" in your front yard, light up the walkways for Diwali or feature Santa Claus and his reindeer on your roof. Regardless of which holiday you prefer to go all out for, the potential to spread extra holiday cheer to neighbors, family and friends draws many to decor and home improvement stores.
You're certainly not alone. For companies that design and install holiday decorations, like Neave Group Outdoor Solutions, which operates in parts of New York and Connecticut, requests for holiday setups come in earlier and earlier each year, says Glen Baisley, marketing and customer service director for Neave Group. Clients call about Christmas decorations as early as spring and will lock in plans in July or August, and the number people looking to decorate for other holidays is growing. "In the last number of years, it's steadily increasing for Halloween decor," he says.
But not everyone is always a fan of your style of exterior decorating. After you've gone all out creating a winter paradise or turning your lawn into a haunted graveyard, can you be forced to take down your decorations?
Here's what you need to know about your rights for decorating your property and the situations where you can find yourself limited in your holiday decor.
Your Property, Your Holiday Wonderland
For a property that isn't tied to a homeowners association – meaning you don't pay dues to a neighborhood entity that manages the utilities, services or common areas nearby – you don't have to be concerned about breaking many rules. In that case, your decorations are a part of your First Amendment rights and are considered free speech.
Just like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, there are limits to what the First Amendment protects, of course. If you create a particularly gruesome Halloween scene in your front yard, complete with the "Frankenstein" monster's latest victim, which you label as your neighbor Bob down the street, your decision to name someone you know may be considered a threat or intimidation, which can be prosecuted.
Even if you keep your gory Halloween decorations general, a lifelike and bloody scene may lead the police to knock on your door at least once to ensure no crime has been committed, following calls from concerned passersby.
In 2017, the Greene County Sheriff's Department in Tennessee posted a photo on Facebook of a local resident's decorations depicting a dummy that appeared to have been crushed by a garage door – fake blood and all. The Facebook post lightheartedly instructed passersby not to call 911 over the sight, making it clear the situation was not a crime scene.
Holiday lights that blink or shine brightly can also be subject to local ordinances. If you create too much light pollution, you may need to turn the lights off after a certain time to avoid disturbing the neighbors. These rules can vary by city, county or township, so be sure to check with local laws if your bright displays light up the whole street.
Violation of a local ordinance on light pollution, sounds or even potentially disturbing the peace for a gruesome scene that leads to multiple 911 calls could result in a simple warning to correct it, but you may also be left with a ticket and fine to pay.
Even if your decorations are ultimately all in good fun, it may be best to rethink them if it means you'll have to prove you haven’t committed any nefarious deeds. Plus, if your decorations leave others concerned that someone has been murdered in your yard or excessive blinking lights keep the rest of your block awake at night, you may not be scoring any good-neighbor points. It may be worth taming the display to remain on good terms with others in the neighborhood.
Enter the HOA
If you own a condo or house that's part of an HOA, however, you've agreed to abide by the rules established by the board, which may include limits to the type of exterior decorating you can do, which holidays permit decorations and how long they can stay up.
Every HOA differs in its preferences, though it's common for an association to establish rules about the amount of time following the holiday that decorations can stay up and prohibitions of decor that may offend neighbors or the general public, explains Linda Wildman, partner, principal and vice president for IKO Community Management, based in Olney, Maryland.
“Each community has different rules and regulations that oversee that process,” Wildman says.
Strings of lights may be restricted to white or yellow only, or the HOA may prohibit inflatable lawn decorations. Many HOAs are strictest about ensuring holiday decorations come down within 20 days of the holiday, for example.
In Neave Group's work to design and install holiday decorations, among other outdoor contracting work the company does, many clients are the HOAs themselves. The company will often work with HOAs to decorate a neighborhood's common areas, which makes it easy to define the association's preferences and restrictions when determining the needs of the project.
For individuals who want an outdoor setup but live under an HOA, "we'll do our homework to know what's allowed and what’s not allowed," Baisley says.
Wildman says it's also up to the HOA’s board to determine how frequently and strictly a neighborhood is inspected for violations, including for holiday decorations. Depending on your association, residents may need to report perceived violations to the board. In other associations, a community management company may inspect for violations as part of its regular duties.
Normally, that enforcement comes in the form of sending a letter with photographic evidence of the HOA violation. "We'll take the picture and send the letter before we've even passed the house, by email or text," she says. Typically, violations are a result of being unaware of the rules, and it's simply a matter of correcting the error.
How to Make Everyone Happy
HOA or not, the best way to put up a holiday display you're happy with and your neighbors won't balk at it is to talk to them ahead of time to gauge their reaction. You may find the couple next door loves the idea of a festive Thanksgiving pumpkin patch display on your lawn, or the family across the street is all for you setting up a haunted house, with the request that nothing gives the kids nightmares.
A classic look for the holiday is most likely to guarantee a favorable reaction from neighbors, and that doesn't mean you have to stifle your creativity. Baisley says Neave Group steers away from Halloween decorations that are "really scary or gory" to avoid negative reactions, but a spider web display it installed on a townhouse last year, complete with giant spiders and mannequins trapped in the webs, received rave reviews throughout the neighborhood.
Talking your plans over with neighbors can not only be a great way to avoid bothering or offending anyone, but it can also inspire others to get in on the holiday cheer. Your decorations will appear even more festive with other houses on the block getting excited about the season as well.
Don't let your house fall behind.
Every homeowner knows that maintaining a house is hard work, and few have the time, money or willpower to keep their home looking perfect at all times. When it’s the peak of home selling season, it may seem like half the houses on your block are in pristine, market-ready condition, or they’re under construction and will look fresh and new in no time. How can you keep your house from becoming the worst-looking house on the block, or letting it fall behind on updates? It may seem like an impossible task, but it's one all homes face eventually.Take stock of your aging home.
Take stock of your aging home.
Even if it seems like every house in your neighborhood is getting a fresh interior, exterior or is newly built, the typical house has at least a few decades under its belt. “U.S. housing stock is aging, and especially in city centers and areas of urban density,” says Holly Tachovsky, CEO of construction information company BuildFax. So don't feel so bad about your chipping paint and dated entrance, but know that maintenance and renovations are key factors in ensuring your home will hold value and last for generations. Read on for tips on keeping your house updated as your neighborhood changes.Attend neighborhood open houses.
Attend neighborhood open houses.
For your house to increase in value along with other houses being built or renovated in the neighborhood, it needs to be on par with the updates. An easy way to know what you need to do to keep up with the Joneses is to attend open houses when a nearby property goes on the market. Listing agents expect curious neighbors to pop in, and it’s a great opportunity to see what the interiors look like and compare them to your home. If houses selling for top dollar in your neighborhood have new kitchens and master suites, you may want to put kitchen and bathroom renovations on your to-do list.Get a green thumb.
Get a green thumb.
Don't let your house get a reputation as the worst on the block by neglecting its curb appeal. Keep the siding clean and consider repainting, and maintain the grass and landscape to keep the house looking fresh from the road. Kris Kiser, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, says relandscaping your yard also gives you the opportunity to select flora that work best for the climate, your property and the amount of time you have to maintain it. “Put the kinds of plantings in place that will hold your dirt in place, that will grab and capture and filter rainwater, and put in flowering plants,” he says.Make minor updates.
Make minor updates.
Keeping up with other houses in the neighborhood doesn’t mean every project has to be a big one. Small updates to keep your home looking well-cared-for, like fresh paint in each room or new doors on cabinets, can make a big difference. Dan Tarantin, president and CEO of Harris Research Inc., the parent company of N-Hance Wood Refinishing and Chem-Dry, notes that refinishing hardwood surfaces can achieve a new look at a far more affordable price than replacing materials throughout the house every time you want to update. “That is a way to allow people to be able to do all the projects at once, because of the cost and the convenience,” he says.Maintain, maintain, maintain.
Maintain, maintain, maintain.
The key to keeping your house from being a teardown candidate when you decide to sell is to maintain the basic systems, care for the property and ensure it runs properly. Tachovsky says regular maintenance is necessary to keep houses from falling apart: “They constantly need that upgrade, and if they’re maintained well over the life of a structure, the structure can be useful for a long time.” From the roof to siding, electric and plumbing, keep an eye on the age of systems and have them serviced regularly. Otherwise, she says, your home is “going to show its age pretty profoundly.”Get the most out of what you have.
Get the most out of what you have.
With proper care and maintenance, you should be able to get the full life out of major appliances and systems, such as your HVAC, and the same goes for floors, cabinets, outdoor walkways and furniture. Have your carpets cleaned, consider placing a rug over hardwood floors that get the most foot traffic, pull weeds around the driveway and sidewalk and clean your furniture regularly so the natural oils from people and pets don’t set in and cause long-term damage. Even if you’re sick of your kitchen's appearance, you don’t have to demo the entire thing. Consider quartz countertops to replace laminate, or put a new finish on existing cabinets to can make them look new. With a little work, “we’ve seen people fall in love all over again with their kitchens,” Tarantin says.Don't be afraid to freshen what you've updated.
Don't be afraid to freshen what you've updated.
Especially if you’re planning to remain in your home for 10 years or more, even the most on-trend master bathroom or living room can look completely dated when you sell. Investing in a bathroom update now will likely give you years of use, but don’t be afraid to update again as your needs change or the space’s age starts to show. Kiser points out that making changes over and over again is particularly easy with landscaping. “You can move this and move that” until you achieve the look and functionality you’re hoping for, he says.Improve for more than ROI.
Improve for more than ROI.
Don’t spend all your savings trying to match new builds or flipped houses if you can’t enjoy the updates. Plenty of homebuyers are planning to make changes to a house they buy anyway. From 2010 to the start of 2017, post-sale home remodels increased by 54 percent compared to the previous seven-year period from 2002 to 2009, according to BuildFax. Tarantin says hardwood floors, for example, are often a preference among homebuyers, but they're only worth the money if you’ll enjoy the look as well. “If you’re thinking about selling your home in the near future, and you’re thinking of installing hardwood floors because of saleability, our customers tell us it’s not worth it,” he says.Read More
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.