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Denver's Stapleton neighborhood

Tell us you want to buy a home in a neighborhood under the thumb of a homeowners’ association (HOA) and we’ll tell you a single word in response: “Don’t.” Or maybe we’ll be a little more verbose, and say “Don’t even think about it, or if you must, think about it the same way you might think about a giant dinosaur-killer asteroid striking planet Earth: i.e., something you do not want happening to you.”

Earlier this week we ran an article called “Homeowners associations: government without the checks and balances.” In it, we mentioned three specific examples of American HOAs behaving abominably, but there was nothing particularly unique about any of those stories; they simply happened to be the first three news articles from that week to appear when we typed “HOA” into a news search engine. And the reason we set such strict time limits on our search is because if we tried doing an all-inclusive article about American HOA asininity, the resulting article would be longer than "War and Peace."

HOAs, in theory, are supposed to oversee the use of any commonly rather than privately owned areas in a neighborhood, and set other rules to ostensibly protect the residents’ quality of life. But all too often, HOAs destroy their residents’ quality of life (not to mention financial stability) instead.

A few examples

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The Andover playhouse

Here’s a random sampling of outrages you’ll find if you search for the words “HOA” and “Lawsuit” in the past two years:

Denver, Colo.: The HOA board at the “family-friendly” Stapleton neighborhood decided to crack down on a vandalism spree — specifically, a three-year-old child drawing on a sidewalk with chalk. (We know Colorado currently has different marijuana laws than most of America; does the state have different laws of physics, too? We ask because in every place we’ve ever lived, sidewalk chalk drawings were 100-percent water soluble and guaranteed to vanish in the first drizzle.)

Lexington, Ky.: The Andover Forest Homeowners’ Association boldly faced down another three-year-old vigilante, this one with cerebral palsy. His parents erected a little playhouse in their backyard, after his physical therapist suggested it would help the child be more active. But the HOA forbids “structures” that are not attached to the main house, and fined the little boy’s family $50 for every day the miniature playhouse remained standing. News station KTSM had this to say about HOA board member Ernie Stamper:

Despite all of the support for [the little boy and his family], Ernie Stamper says the board will not back down. Stamper is one of seven people who represent the Andover Forest Subdivision. They contend the playhouse violates association rules, and they are fining the family every day the playhouse remains.

"They aren't allowed. Structures not attached to a house are not allowed," he said. Stamper also the comparisons to swing sets don't apply, denying that they are "structures". "It's a swing set," Stamper said.

He wouldn't elaborate, but did say the board wouldn't consider changing the rules to let Cooper keep his house. "It's not something we have a reason to discuss. There are people who live here who expect us to abide by those covenants. It's why they bought their house.”

The family tore down the playhouse rather than risk losing their regular house to the HOA. We strongly suspect, but cannot prove, that HOA board members like Ernie Stamper later patted themselves on the back and told themselves they were good people who did something noble and heroic.

We suspect the same about the HOA that tried preventing a family from building a wheelchair ramp so their wheelchair-bound child could enter or leave the house.  The HOA that is suing a family for erecting a small child’s swingset in their own backyard.  The HOA that banned children living there from playing outside, via forbidding bicycles, skateboards, scooters, roller skates, toy use or ball playing in any common (read: outdoor) areas of the complex. The HOA that halted construction of a new home for a paralyzed Army veteran because said home, at 2,785 square feet, would be “too small” for the neighborhood.  And many more.

The winner is ...

PhotoIf there were an Academy Awards for insanely bad homeowner’s associations, we’d say the Oscar for 2013 belongs to Olde Belhaven in Fairfax County, Va. (another way of saying “suburban Washington, DC”).  

The Olde Belhaven HOA literally bankrupted itself after spending four years and over $400,000 in an insane effort to punish homeowners Sam and Maria Farran over a political yard sign.

Here’s the short version of the story: During the 2008 election season, the Farrans put an “OBAMA” sign in their front yard. The HOA board got huffy because the sign was four inches too big according to HOA guidelines, so the Farrans cut it in half and made two signs, each under the size limit, reading “OBA” and “MA.”

(Confession: If we wont to post political signs in our yards, we’d probably have done the same thing regardless of who our preferred 2008 candidate was: Oba & Ma, Mc & Cain, Third & Party, whoever.)

The HOA board lashed out at the Farrans with a mass of illegal actions (illegal not just under US or state law, but the HOA’s own covenants and bylaws), including imposing punitive fines on the Farrans, passing special Farran-only building restrictions, even pushing what amounted to ex post facto rules against the couple – and after four years of this obsessive nonsense, a judge finally ruled in the Farrans’ favor. Olde Belhaven has to pay the Farrans’ legal costs in addition to their own … and the HOA association went bankrupt as a result.

But during the four years the case dragged through the courts, Olde Belhaven raised its condo fees to cover its legal costs; the $650 annual fee rose to $3,500 before the HOA went bankrupt.

That’s another problem with HOAs: even if you, personally, do everything right and never run afoul of the HOA board or bylaws, you can still suffer horrible financial consequences if, for example, your HOA board is obsessed enough to spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees attempting to punish neighbors who briefly had an extra four inches of cardboard on their front-yard campaign sign two presidential elections ago.

Yes, we know, there are lots of people who can honestly say “I live in an HOA and everything’s wonderful.” We also know of people who can honestly claim, “I spent my money on lottery tickets and that’s how I became a millionaire.” We’re not saying it never happens; we’re just saying don’t bet your house on it happening to you.


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