One afternoon in 2009, Keith Strong received a letter at home in Bowie, MD, stating that he’d have to buy a new mailbox … for $500.
Who could issue such a draconian order—and why?
It turns out this mandate came from Strong’s homeowners association, or HOA, which had deemed that certain mailboxes in the community were looking run-down. So, the board decided to require that everyone upgrade, for uniformity’s sake, to the same rather homely cast-aluminum model costing $500 (pictured below).
The infamous $500 mailbox that the Strong family refused to purchase. Keith Strong
But Strong, a solar physicist with NASA who’d paid $35 for a charming and functional cedar mailbox just months earlier, wasn’t buying that line—or the fancy mailbox.
“They just passed [the requirement] without speaking to the homeowners,” Strong tells realtor .com
So up his mailbox remained, kicking off an epic seven-year battle that stands out even in the crowded annals of HOA disputes, even receiving coverage in the Washington Post. Strong took his case to court, which recently ruled against the HOA and its stinkin’ mandatory letter boxes.
The long road to victory stuck him with $33,000 in litigation fees—roughly the price of 66 of those fancy mailboxes he’d refused to buy.
Still, to Strong, it was never about the mailbox.
“I care about the precedent,” he tells us. “We just put a new roof on our house that cost over $100,000. What would stop our HOA from coming back and saying, ‘We don’t like cedar roofs, you’ve got to put a new roof on’?” Fight the system, Mr. Strong!
HOA vs. homeowners: How far can it go?
Any homeowner in such a community knows that HOAs have a lot of rules, all with the purported goal of maintaining the neighborhood’s safety, appearance, and property values. Yet sometimes, homeowners believe their HOAs cross the line, issuing orders that trample on their rights—backed up by none-too-idle threats to fall in step or face fines or even expulsion.
Strong faced fines of $100 for every month his home lacked the magic mailbox after the HOA’s deadline of January 2013. He refused to fork it over, and attended board meetings to air his grievances. Although some of his neighbors agreed with him, many caved for fear of making waves and even being foreclosed on. So Strong took his case to court.
“Some said we were trying to bankrupt our HOA, but we actually only sued them for $1,” he says. “We wanted the board to admit they were wrong.”
All of which provokes the question: What are your rights as a homeowner? And just as important, what can be done to keep such HOA showdowns from happening to you?
How to keep HOAs in check
Before you buy a home, you are by law required to receive a copy of the HOA’s rules and regulations, otherwise known as their CC&Rs. If you spot certain rules you don’t like, you should ask for more info on these policies—and if more alarm bells go off, you are legally allowed to back out of your deal, no worse for the wear.
But understand that laws of the land and laws of the HOA are not exactly the same thing.
“A perfect example of the scope of the HOA’s power can be illustrated through the use of a flag,” explains J.R. Skrabanek, a lawyer who has brought cases against HOAs. “Flags cannot be banned because they are protected speech under the First Amendment. However, an HOA can have perfectly legal rules that pertain to the size of the flag.”
Go into your agreement with eyes wide-open.
“You are signing away certain rights, and you are limiting what you can do with your property,” says Evan Randall, owner of Randall Legal Solutions.
If you already own a home when you encounter an HOA regulation you think oversteps its bounds, bring it up at a board meeting to see if you can sway members and change the policy. If that fails, then look to the courts.
“HOAs are regulated by the local court system,” says Nathan Miller, a property manager at Rentec . cm who served as the president of his condominium association for 10 years. As such, “the court is the system to enforce a homeowner’s rights.”
Although Strong is happy with where he lives and does not plan to move, one side effect of the feud was the strain on his relationship with the board.
“We’ve had a dead tree sitting outside our house for the last two years,” he says, adding that the HOA, which is responsible for removing it, has not done a thing. Is it retaliation, or just a case of mixed-up priorities? Stay tuned.