5 On Your Side

Homeowners need to know rules, rights

Posted November 13, 2008 5:00 p.m. EST
Updated October 12, 2011 9:45 a.m. EDT

— Homeowners’ associations can be powerful. Most run smoothly without an issue. With more than 2 million people statewide living in neighborhoods covered by homeowners’ associations, however, there are bound to be problems when property rights that residents believe they have clash with neighborhood boards' rules.

Experts say the key is knowing what you are getting into before you buy in the neighborhood.

“Your association board of directors is like a small town council,” said Attorney Clark Brewer, who represents homeowners’ association (H.O.A.) boards and homeowners.

Brewer said H.O.A.’s have power, and too many homeowners don’t realize it.

“Quite often, whatever they're thinking about doing that is exterior-related pertaining to their townhouse or house … to putting in fences, sheds … they have to go through an approval process,” Brewer said.

Raleigh homeowner Les Bernstein found that out the hard way. He spent $6,500 putting in an artificial lawn. He never got required permission from his H.O.A, and they ordered him to rip it out.

They were within their rights to do that, as long as they are consistent in how they treat all homeowners, Brewer said.

Problems arise when boards don’t apply rules consistently, or change them “after the fact," according to Brewer.

That’s what Donald Reece, also of Raleigh, says happened to him over his mailbox.

Reece said he switched his mailbox to a hand-painted one five years ago. Reece said his H.O.A. decided two years ago that all mailboxes must be hunter green.

“You don’t change the rules of the game in the middle of the game and think everybody’s gonna follow them,” Reece said.

Reece said he has been receiving letters from a management group saying he must change his mailbox or they will fine him.

Pittsboro resident Crystal Adu’s H.O.A. battle happened before she ever moved in. The board approved the vinyl trim on her home. But months later, changed the rules and told her to replace the trim – at an estimated cost of $17,500. In the meantime, Adu and her family were forbidden to use neighborhood amenities.

“They’re attacking me, attacking my family, and I feel like that’s pretty intimidating,” Adu said.

After 5 On Your Side’s calls, the H.O.A. dropped the trim issue.

“There are definitely boards who go too far,” Brewer said. He believes that was the case with Adu’s trim and possibly Reece’s mailbox.

Even in cases where the rules are clear, Brewer cautions that despite their power, H.O.A. boards need to remember that the people they govern are neighbors.

“I think it comes down to what is a reasonable approach to take? What is a reasonable outcome? And don’t just insist on enforcing rules just because they’re there," Brewer said.