Big Neighbor Is Watching You
Homeowner associations can foster a sense of community — or they can bully you, slap you with fines, even take your house
Piloting his plane over southeastern Massachusetts en route to Nantucket one day in 1993, Michael Reardon spotted his dream home. The two-story Cape Cod, with its wraparound porch and cedar-shake siding, was both spacious and quaint. Better yet, just a few hundreds yards from the lot sat a runway where he could land his single-engine Cessna. And because the Falmouth Air Park Homeowners Association — the resident-run group that governs the 160-acre neighborhood — was marketing the homes specifically to pilots, Reardon and his family would be living in a like-minded utopia.
At least that's what he thought at the time.
It didn't take long for his opinion to sour. The homeowner association, he claims, was a veritable Big Brother, going after residents for having the wrong lightposts, landscaping, wood siding, and driveway surfaces. Before long, Reardon began to feel as if, by agreeing to the association's bylaws — called "covenants, conditions, and restrictions," or CC&Rs — he'd signed away his rights. "This place is an aberration of American democracy," he says. "The association has become a de facto government. They judge and punish."
But it wasn't until the Reardons decided to move that things got really messy. The association informed Reardon that his prospective buyer, who was not a pilot, would have to build an airplane hangar on the lot. "She heard that and got spooked away."
Frustrated, he sued the association for interference with contract but lost. "The CC&R documents require the building of a hangar," says former association president Dave Shaw. "You sign them to show you agree." Now out $40,000 in legal fees and looking at building a hangar, at a cost of as much as $150,000, before he can sell the house, Reardon is more anxious than ever to leave. "We can't even stand seeing our neighbors anymore," he says.
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."
Fine Print Primer
If you're considering buying a home that's part of an association, it's a good idea to review the rules carefully beforehand. Legally known as the "covenants, conditions, and restrictions," or CC&Rs, these can range from the extremely specific to the maddeningly vague. In fact, it's the latter that can lead to the most serious problems down the line, when associations put their own spin on broad terms like "first-class" and "attractive."
Here are some examples of real association rules:
- Houses may be painted gray, green, or brown, but not yellow.
- Flagpoles must be shorter than 6 feet and attached to the house.
- Lawns must not be allowed to turn brown.
- Hedges must always be trimmed.
- Freestanding basketball hoops are banned.
- New homes should not block sunrise views.
- POW/MIA flags may not be flown.
- Only cats and dogs may be kept as pets. No peafowl.
- Crucifixes may not be stuck into patio flowerbeds.
- Pay your monthly dues on time or your home may be seized.