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September 24, 2010

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.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Neighborhood and neighbors


I've been a Board member for my association for 9 of the 16 years I have lived there. My problem with covenants comes in the way that they were originally written. For my neighborhood they were written by a law firm for the first of two builders. None of these people ever lived in the community. We have 138 houses, 60 of which have wooden front porches and concrete drives. The others have concrete porches and asphalt drives. That is a nightmare when you try to establish "community standards."

We also have had what I want to call "technology" issues. For example, decks have to be made with pretreated lumber, but these days Trex or other recycled products are very attractive to homeowners.

We must have wooden or metal mailboxes, but what about the "rubbermaid" type products now that are very popular?

I can see how that's a problem, BMAC1206. Can your association's board members update the covenants to take the march of time into account?

'Debbie E. Nix, covenant advisor at the Village of Harper's Choice, thinks the belief that the covenants are "overly restrictive" is a misunderstanding.'

OF COURSE Debbie Nix is going to say that the covenants aren't overly restrictive. Fidel Castro will also have you know that any criticisms of communism are a misunderstanding.

Debbie Nix receives a paycheck to make people's lives a living hell with these covenants. What a way to make a living. Really, I'm supposed to pay several hundred thousand for a house, and beg someone for permission to make adjustments to my own house as I see fit? What a crock. I'm giving you the polite description of what I really think of her and the Columbia Villages Association.

I can't be the only one that feels this way.

There should be a oversight body within governement whom steps in when complants exists. There should not be any organization that governs with such power, without government oversight in case of corruption ect.

Why does it have to be an oligarchy?

One vote per household. Then decide what is allowed and what isn't. After all it's your money.

My opinion of covenants and 'community associations' is very bad.

Let's say one was created in 1900. It would have required each and every residence to have a 'hitching post' for the horse(s) of visitors. And if the resident owned a horse, a stable would have been required.

Would such things have been needed just 25 years later? And if no one had updated the covenants, and the community association hadn't reviewed them, such things would still be required of all new homes or upkeep of such would be required of existing homes.

What would be the equivalents of 25 years ago (big dish antenna?), and/or today?

I will start with the fact that I wouldn't live in one of these communities ever. But, if you don't like the rules why in the hell did you buy the house in the first place. There are many people who like to live in these type of places and they bought their properties because of the covenants. They should not have to suffer because someone who made a bad purchase decision wants everything to change. Again, I don't like these communities but wouldn't buy into one in the first place.

It's also important to note that as a buyer, you have the right to get a copy of the HOA documents and financials (usually called a "resale packet). The seller is usually obligated to pay for this (~$100-200).

This packet includes the covenants and bylaws that govern the community, and usually includes the budget for the community as well as what delinquencies may be against the property.

You have 5 days from receipt of these docs to cancel the purchase agreement based on the contents of the docs. So if you don't like a community's rule of no swimming pools, or that you can't put up a fence higher than 48", you can cancel the deal within that 5 day period.

As for covenants/bylaws, the board should be keeping them up to date for the times. I was Pres. of my HOA for several years, and we voted to add Trex/vinyl decking to the allowable deck materials. No reason a board shouldn't be at least considering new materials/ideas/innovations.

I live in an HOA - I guess it is good that there is some standard and for the most part the community looks good. When I first moved in there some neighbor I got off the wrong foot with would complain about all these little things to the HOA and I would get letters. In the beginning I would obey the letters then I started questioning their legality. For example, I would see others around me had done the same thing for a while or the issue they were complaining about was not in the bylaws. I got the HOA to back down many times. Now I look around the community and see some of the houses really keep their lawns crappy and a few of the paint colors are not even from the original list. In the case of my HOA, I wonder how much power they have to enforce many of our rules. I know some can come on your property and bill you for the change and can fine you, but ours can't from what I can tell. Maybe I need to start blowing them off more.

What is the point of living in a community with so many covenants? May as well live in a condo. You can tell if a neighbourhood is worth buying in by the curb appeal around the community. Most people toe the line when it comes to the outside of their home because they are embarassed to stick out in the neighbourhood and there home value goes down. Most of these neighbourhoods are middle to upper class anyway.

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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
Baltimore Sun articles by Jamie

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