Homeowner association rules
The idea that a home is your best investment might have taken a beating these past few years, but one factor still driving renters to buy is the image of painting, hanging pictures, keeping pets and generally doing whatever they want to the place without someone else telling them no.
If you're buying into one of the many neighborhoods with a homeowner association, though, keep in mind that what you do to the exterior can become a community affair.
Rules vary from association to association. Some changes require permission. Some are simply banned.
My hometown of Columbia is the subject of frequent teasing about its strict rules, known as covenants. (Back when she was covering the planned community, colleague Laura Vozzella once wrote about the effect those covenants had on a "beautiful yard" award in Kings Contrivance: Organizers realized that all the nominees had run afoul of the rules by not getting permission for their minor improvements. A baby swing hung from a tree, for instance.)
So a Columbia village seemed like a good place to start when I went looking for a primer on what new homeowners should know to avoid ending up with a violation notice.
Debbie E. Nix, covenant advisor at the Village of Harper's Choice, thinks the belief that the covenants are "overly restrictive" is a misunderstanding.
"The covenants allow for a wide range of different types of changes that people want to make to their homes," she said. "They just should be aware that there's a process and they should submit to the architectural committee before they make changes to the outside of their house. ... A change in style, color or material is the general rule."
So: Repainting a beige door light blue? Yup. Putting on an addition? Definitely. Landscaping the yard? Yes.
But the village's philosophy is to find a way to OK requests, not to toss them out, Nix said.
"Over 97 percent of our applications are approved -- either approved as submitted or approved with provisions or as amended," she said.
You'll get a copy of the rules for your particular homeowners' association when you go to settlement, but you can also find some online. That's true of the Columbia covenants, which vary somewhat from village to village.
Before you make an offer on a home in a neighborhood with an association, you might also want to ask the sellers if they're in violation of any rules. (That does has to be disclosed at settlement, so you should find out eventually, said Wendy Tzuker, village manager for Harper's Choice.)
What if you want to make a change and your homeowners' association says no?
"It pretty much depends on how stringent the governing documents are," said Raymond D. Burke, an attorney with Ober Kaler in Baltimore who focuses on condo association law. "Usually that's a case-by-case basis."
First step: See if there's an appeals process within the association. If you get another "no way" and don't want to give up, you could hire an attorney to argue your case -- either to the association or in court. (Some associations require arbitration rather than court.)
Homeowners' associations are entitled to make judgments about what's allowed and what isn't, but "you do have recourse if their judgment is arbitrary and capricious," Burke said.
"They're required to at least be reasonable," he said. "But it often is not economically sensible to pursue a claim just because of the cost that would be involved in doing so."
Court is a recourse not only for homeowners who want to do something their association isn't allowing, but also for homeowners who want to put a stop to something a neighbor is doing that their association is allowing.
Burke recalls one Baltimore County case in which a homeowner went to court to try to get rid of a neighbor's trees -- and won.