Good Neighbors

Good Neighbors

Covenant police, residential private government, and bullies. These are just a few of the names that homeowner associations have been called. “I’ve had a few issues with them,” says David Doggette, who purchased a townhouse in Laurel, Maryland, almost 10 years ago. “Once, after returning from a business trip, I found a letter requesting that I cut my grass. It wasn’t as though the grass was out of control. It was just ready to be cut. They told me I had five days to complete the task or I would be fined $50. There was also an issue with my deck. According to the association, not only was the sunburst design in the railing not in conformance with their Convenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs), but the post toppers were also the wrong size and shape,” he says.

The majority of homes built today are in these developed communities. Homeowners associations (HOAs), which are governed by a board of directors, were created to ensure the maintenance of common areas and to ensure that homeowners adhere to the CCRs of the development. By the end of this year, there will be an estimated 249,000 community associations in the U.S. In fact, 6,000 to 8,000 new community associations are formed every year. What should homeowners expect from their neighborhood watch group?

According to the Community Associations Institute (CAI), which currently has 16,000 members and 55 nationwide chapters, HOAs help protect property value, provide affordable ownership opportunities, and meet the need for increased privatization of services. Without an HOA, many homeowners on the East Coast would have been snowed in this past winter.

So, why all the derogative name calling? Because although a 1999 Gallup Survey found that 94% of the 50 million homeowners who live in these housing developments are satisfied with their community, 6% are extremely unhappy with their neighborhood HOA.

Shu Bartholomew, the host of a cable access program that focuses on issues related to HOAs, says they can infringe on the personal rights of residents. “You are not entitled to constitutional protections because you signed a contractual agreement. You may end up living in a place run by people who don’t have to protect your rights.”

Doggette and his neighbor were written up after his neighbor placed green mulch around the bushes between their homes. “It wasn’t in compliance. Then I received another letter telling me it was time to paint the exterior of my home. Some of the rules are good. But some are just plain old nitpicky,” he quips.

In Homeowner Associations: A Nightmare or a Dream Come True (Cassie Publications; $29.95), author Joni Greenwalt provides a detailed list of possible restrictive covenants, such as painting exteriors specific colors, keeping garage doors closed except when entering or exiting, installing specific types of fences, and even parking in your driveway. They may also include eliminating clotheslines, birdhouses or feeders, and imposing curfew hours.

Fees, otherwise known as assessment dues, can also be an area of contention. Associations often require homeowners to pay a yearly assessment