Houses Of Horror
Hate your homeowners association?
By Sarah Max, staff writer
April 22, 2004
As more Americans live
in privately owned communities, more lawsuits arise
BEND, Ore. – Three years
after moving into a new 4,700-square-foot home in Brook Hills, a gated community
near San Diego, Sonni and James Bass are caught up in an expensive legal battle
with their homeowners association. Brook Hills is suing the Basses, who are
returning the favor with a counter suit. Why? The association says they took too
long to do their landscaping. Plus, they installed a light on their tennis court
Sonni and James Bass are
fighting their homeowners association over the landscaping on their property.
"All my clients have tried to do is enforce the rules," said
Michael Kim, an attorney with Peters & Freedman, the firm that represents
Brook Hills and about 500 other homeowners associations. The board tried to
resolve things peacefully, he argued, by giving the couple extra time to do
their landscaping and sending a letter asking the Basses to "please
remove" the light. "Anyone who did extensive landscaping took more
than a year," countered Sonni Bass. "I'm the only one who's being
sued." As for the light on the tennis court, she said, "the board
president threatened to remove it with a jackhammer."
The squabble may sound
familiar, because disputes just like it are happening across the United States.
About one in six Americans lives in an association-managed community, according
to the Community Association Institute (CAI). An estimated four out of five
houses built since the late 1990s are governed by a homeowners association. As
more people move to such places, the adage that fences make good neighbors no
longer seems relevant. In fact, your neighbors might not let you even put up a
The primary purpose of a
homeowners association is to manage a neighborhood's common areas such as roads,
parks and pools. Homeowners are obligated to pay dues – which can be anything
from $100 to $10,000 a year, depending on the neighborhood and its amenities.
Homeowners are also obligated to live by the association's rulebook, also known
as covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs). An elected, volunteer
board of directors is responsible for enforcing these rules. The regulations
vary widely but typically cover such things as the color of your house, the
kinds of trees you may plant, where you can park your car and whether you can
rent out your home. In some neighborhoods, homeowners have faced fines for such
offenses as flying the American flag, decorating for unapproved holidays or
putting the wrong color curtains in their windows. Homeowners associations even
have the right to foreclose on those who fail to pay their association dues.
According to a study by
Sentinel Fair House, a fair housing group in California, associations were
responsible for 18 percent of all foreclosure actions in five counties they
studied over a 12-month period. All told, associations foreclosed on about 70
houses in five counties for amounts of less than $2,500 – including legal
fees. "The punishment does not fit the crime," said Michael Macomber,
an attorney for Tom and Anita Radcliff, a retired couple in Copperopolis, Calf.
whose home was foreclosed on by their association in January because the couple
did not pay the $120 in annual dues they owed.
The majority of homeowners
are happy with their associations, claimed Frank Rathbun, spokesman for CAI. Not
only do such associations give owners access to amenities they may not be able
to afford on their own – such as swimming pools and private security – they
help protect property values, he added. "While the rules may seem
arbitrary, you have to ask yourself, 'What if every resident did the same
thing?'" said Rathbun. In other words, the fact that your neighbor can't
put his car on blocks in the front yard is probably to your benefit.
Critics of homeowners
associations, however, argue that the bodies have too much power and not enough
oversight. "There needs to be a regulatory agency that creates rules [of
conduct for associations] and enforces them," said Jan Bergemann, a retired
hotel owner and chef in St. Augustine, Fla. who founded Cyber Citizens for
Justice. "Few people can afford to hire a lawyer just to get minutes from a
homeowners association meeting." At the very least, say homeowner
advocates, there should be more disclosure about the constraints of living in
neighborhoods governed by associations. "You need to know that you're
essentially giving up your property rights," said George Staropoli, a
resident of a homeowners association in Scottsdale, Ariz., and founder of
Citizens Against Private Government HOAs.
Buyers typically don't get a copy of the association's CC&Rs until they close on their home or move in. Unless they specifically ask about association rules or a real estate agent points them out, they may not understand the implications of buying in a particular neighborhood until it's too late to back out. Even if homeowners do manage to get through the CC&Rs -- which are often written in legalese and inches thick -- they still may not understand the consequences of not abiding by the rules, said Staropoli. Sonni Bass certainly never imagined that her landscaping would turn into a high-stakes lawsuit. "I'll never move into another neighborhood with a homeowners association," she said. "I had no idea what we were getting into."
Houses Of Horror