Playing By The Rules

Though the Reardons' particulars may be unique, their experience isn't. Across the country, homeowners are clashing, many times sensationally, with the quasi-governments that rule their lives. Nationwide, a projected 54.6 million Americans, more than 18 percent of the total population, will live in some type of association by the end of this year. That number was just 2.1 million in 1970, according to the Community Associations Institute, a 16,000-member advocacy group. And owing to a huge surge in new-home construction, much of it in "common-interest development," the number continues to increase.

On the positive side, homeowner associations use members' dues to provide amenities, such as golf courses, playgrounds, and swimming pools, that would be too expensive for residents to afford alone, says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the Community Associations Institute. By imposing certain standards about how houses should look, they can also keep property values higher than they would be in a traditional "unassociated" community.

"Associations protect people from those neighbors who want to put their cars up on cinder blocks or paint their houses orange," says Rathbun. Homeowners have a voice through an elected board of directors and can petition the board for changes; often it takes the approval of two thirds of the association's members to amend the bylaws.

But it doesn't always work that way. Critics complain that associations can interpret rules capriciously. Boards may meet infrequently and can be secretive, pushing through new rules without consulting — and in some cases without informing — homeowners. And worst of all, associations often have the right to seize property for nonpayment of fines or annual dues.

There's no shortage of examples of association heavy-handedness. In Playa Del Rey, California, for instance, a woman was fined $12,000 for hanging a bamboo porch shade without clearing it with the community's architectural review board. A homeowner in Rockwall, Texas, was threatened with legal action for parking her RV in the driveway for a month, while a California woman was hauled into court for displaying a crucifix in a planter. One Denver resident is on the verge of losing her home over a failure to pay $43.35 of monthly dues.

When it comes to these conflicts, homeowners don't have much recourse. Lawsuits are an option, but courts generally favor associations, on the grounds that by signing the contract, you've agreed to abide by the restrictions. So what can you do? For starters, make sure you read the CC&Rs before making an offer (see "Fine-Print Primer,". Ask the real-estate agent about the association's behavior, and talk to prospective neighbors about their experiences. If you already live in a community governed by a homeowner association and are unhappy about something, be proactive. Let the board of directors know you have a problem. Don't simply withhold dues or refuse to pay fines; that could end up snowballing into having to pay a penalty or worse.

While no homeowner association is perfect, Rathbun argues that they perform an essential function. "The best ones provide a sense of community," he says. Maybe so, but Michael Reardon isn't willing to take that chance again. Once his hangar is built, he's hoping to buy a new home, one that stands alone. "We're looking for acreage," he says, "so there's plenty of land between us and the next neighbor."



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