HOAs: Overzealous busybodies or valuable neighborhood protectors? Yes!

Article Courtesy of  The Orlando Sentinel

By Scott Maxwell

Published May 15, 2018

Last weekend, the Orlando Sentinel shared the story of a family in Oviedo that hoped to spread neighborhood joy with a little birdhouse-shaped lending library — a wooden box filled with books that kids or anyone else could borrow, read and return.

It sounded happy. And quaint. And generous.

But the family’s homeowner’s association wanted no part of that happy, quaint generosity … at least not in the family’s front yard.

After failed efforts for a compromise — including suggesting the family relocate the tiny library to a common area — the HOA produced a printed product of its own. Not a book, but a cease-and-desist letter, telling them their library was “disapproved” … along with a bill for $195 in legal fees.

The story sounds kind of nutty. A homeowner wants to do something nice. An HOA starts issuing fines.

Yet stories like this play out over and over in Florida.

We’ve seen brouhahas over flags, clotheslines, sheds, gardens, paint colors and roof tiles.

Realtors told me they’ve seen homeowners hassled over bird baths and rain barrels.

People often respond: Come on! Don’t we live in free America?

No, you do not. Not if you’re living in an HOA. There, you checked a chunk of your freedom at the subdivision gates when you decided to buy a house there.


Sure, I think some of these disputes are downright deranged. (See: “When your HOA doesn’t allow bird feeders.”)

Autumn Garick, center, is flanked by her 17-year-old daughter Bryn and husband Bob outside their home in Oviedo's Bentley Woods. The neighborhood's HOA wants the family to remove the birdhouse-shaped book nook that serves a community book exchange, though neighbors embrace it.

But there’s a reason why, over the course of two decades at the Sentinel, I have written a grand total of zero pieces about HOA disputes … because HOAs usually have the right to enforce their policies, no matter how petty they seem.

“Homeowners may have questions,” said Cliff Shepard, a Maitland attorney who specializes in HOA issues. “But those are questions that you need to ask before you sign the papers.”

Many buyers do — and want no part of living in deed-restricted communities.

“I hear it all the time,” said real-estate agent Lee Goldberg.

In fact, when I took to Facebook to solicit opinions on HOAs, you’d have thought I was asking about Kim Jong-un.

“I would NEVER buy in a deed-restricted mandatory HOA neighborhood,” said Gordon.

“HOA’s can take your home from you if you owe them six bucks!” declared Daniel.

Margaret, a broker, said a Cuban family once told her: “If I wanted El comité to tell me how to live, to be in fear of my neighbors, we would live in Cuba."

That’s one side anyway. Others loves HOAs.

Some crave law(n) and order the way a submissive craves a dominatrix.

“It’s the police state — and I LOVE it,” declared Steve.

“Many buyers are happy to know that a neighborhood HOA is actively working to maintain standards,” added Holly.

That is, in fact, the goal of a properly working HOA. Not to order a family to repaint a house peach instead of apricot or to slap a lien on a home over $50 in unpaid dues. It’s about making sure a community doesn’t fall into disrepair.

Shepard suggested readers think about neighborhoods like Tymber Skan in southwest Orlando — a quaint community that opened on the shores of Lake Catherine in the 1970s but which fell into such disrepair over the years that county officials had to come in to condemn much of it as “unfit for human occupancy.”

“That is what happens when people stop collecting assessments,” he said.

On a less extreme level, HOAs can be good for keeping up a neighborhood’s basic appearance.

Goldberg, for instance, said he appreciates his HOAs efforts — even though he’s been chastised for sins as minor as leaving a garbage can at the end of his driveway.

There are certainly times when HOAs lose or are wrong. Shepard said it often boils down to what rules are clearly in place and whether they’re consistently enforced. Some families persuade enough of their neighbors to change the HOA policies. Those two avenues might be the Oviedo family’s best hopes. If not, people who like cute little front-yard lending libraries know to avoid the Bentley Woods subdivision.

Some disputes have even led to new state laws — such as one that guarantees all Florida homeowners the right to use clotheslines, making Florida a “right to dry” state. (I’m not making that up.)

The key, Shepard said, is to find out as much information as you can before buying.

The bottom line:
HOAs can be absolute pains in the rear, run by miserable people who get their jollies chastising others for improper grass heights and mailboxes 12-square inches too big.

But many can also add real value to a neighborhood — and be run by genuinely good people who want everyone to be happy.

If you’re not willing to take that chance, don’t live in one.

It’s easier said than done if you’re already in a home. And it will certainly limit your home-buying choices. But it also means you won’t end up in court over a birdbath.