How Much Control Do Homeowner Associations Actually Have Over Your House?
When does a homeowners’ association rule go too far?
Noma Bar for Reader's Digest
When Keith Strong’s mailbox started to look shabby, he replaced it with one he bought at a hardware store for $35 and installed himself. He knew exactly which one to get. The mailbox was a new version of the “cedar, slatted” model that his homeowners’ association (HOA) had approved 13 years earlier for his tony neighborhood of Woodmore, located in a Maryland suburb outside of Washington, DC.
But not two months after he’d installed the new mailbox, he and his neighbors received a notice from the HOA. On August 26, 2009, the HOA board had voted that those wooden mailboxes were no longer acceptable. Instead, the association now required each homeowner to buy a new mailbox that was “rustproof, cast-aluminum” and monogrammed with a w for Woodmore. The HOA also mandated that residents install the box on a matching aluminum post purchased from the same manufacturer. The cost: about $500. Homeowners had two years to complete the upgrade. Those who did not would be fined $100 every 30 days until they complied.
Strong and some of his neighbors were angry. It wasn’t just about the cost. As a retired solar physicist who lived in a $1.5 million home, he could cover the bill. He took issue with the process. Strong and other residents complained that the HOA had violated its own rules when the board passed the new mailbox specifications, first because it did not alert members at least 30 days before voting on the new regulation, and second because the bylaws didn’t give the board the authority to revoke approval for the first mailbox.
Strong decided to take a stand. “It wasn’t just about a mailbox,” he told the Washington Post. “The issue really here is property rights.” He refused to buy the new mailbox, and in July 2013 he was officially cited by the board for noncompliance. In November 2014, he and his wife replied by filing a civil complaint in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, asking for an order to stop the HOA from requiring homeowners to buy and install the new mailboxes.
In response, the HOA pointed to the same bylaws, claiming that it had the power to adopt guidelines “to obtain harmonious architectural design” and to “secure the erection and maintenance of high type and quality improvements.”
Did the HOA have the authority to require homeowners to buy $500 mailboxes? You be the judge.
No, it did not. In his ruling in January 2017, Judge Leo E. Green Jr. explained that “by being able to mandate a specific mailbox, the board could mandate other things.” He considered this to be a slippery slope. “What if the board decided tomorrow that the homeowners all needed slate roofs that cost $50,000?” asked the Strongs’ attorney, Matthew Skipper. The judge ruled the mailbox regulation “null and void.” Strong didn’t have to pay the $1,600 in noncompliance fines. He did, however, have to pay his own $33,000 legal fee—roughly the cost of 66 of those cast-aluminum mailboxes—plus his fraction of the opposing attorney’s fees, which were paid out of HOA dues. “A lot of people have said congratulations for standing up for us,” Strong told fox5dc.com. “Some people even offered to help pay our legal expenses.” Other folks felt differently: Two months after the ruling, Strong found his old wooden mailbox on the ground and the post smashed in half.
Next, read more homeowner association horror stories that will make you cringe.