Industry standard: Buy a house and shut up!
Courtesy + Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

December 13, 2003

Which would you rather have: 

  • The American dream of owning a home, or 
  • Your right to free speech? 
KB Home, one of the largest homebuilders in the nation and in Texas, offers you the choice. 

They don't exactly put it that way. If they did they might not be a $5 billion Fortune 500 company selling 25,000 homes a year. 

No, they present the choice quietly, nestled deep inside a couple dozen pages of deed restrictions. 

It falls between the paragraph saying you have to honor utility easements and the paragraph forbidding "outdoor clothes lines and drying racks visible to adjacent properties." 

The paragraph in question is lengthy, and deserves to be quoted at length. 

"No sign of any kind or character, including (a) any signs in the nature of a `protest' or complaint against Declarant (KB Home) or any homebuilder, (b) or that describe, malign or refer to the reputation, character or building practices of Declarant or any homebuilder, or (c) discourage or otherwise impact or attempt to impact anyone's decision to acquire a lot or residence in the Subdivision shall be displayed to the public view." 

So you can't promote a mayoral candidate or welcome home a son or daughter from a tour of duty in Iraq. 

An exception is made for a single "for sale" or rent sign as long as it is "professionally fabricated" and not larger than 5 square feet. 

KB Home, "any home builder or their agents shall have the right, without notice, to remove any sign, billboard or other advertising structure that does not comply with the above, and in so doing shall not be subject to any liability for trespass or any other liability in connection with such removal." 

A violation can result in a fine of $100 a day. 

"The non-payment of such fine can result in a lien against said Lot, which lien may be foreclosed on ... by the Declarant or any Owner in the Subdivision." 

If you're one of the many who don't want signs in your neighbors' yards anyway, consider the next sentence. 

"Moreover, no Owner may use any public medium such as the `internet' or any broadcast or print medium or advertising to similarly malign or disparage the building quality or practices of any homebuilder, it being acknowledged by all Owners that any complaints or actions against a homebuilder or Declarant are to be resolved in a private manner and any action that creates controversy or publicity for the Subdivision or the quality of construction of any homes within the Subdivision will diminish the quality and value of the Subdivision." 

So it's not just those unsightly lawn signs. You may not give a television interview, write a letter to the editor, post a message on a Web site or go on a radio talk show to discuss any problems you may have had with a homebuilder. And you may not use any of those media to discuss the practices of any homebuilder. 

A spokeswoman at KB's Los Angeles headquarters said Friday afternoon such language has become something of an "industry standard." I'll investigate that further next week, and I'll examine the state of the law on such free-speech restrictions. 

Alice Oliver-Parrott, former chief justice of the 1st Court of Appeals here, now represents homeowners in controversies with builders. She says the notion that the restriction is an industry standard suggests the industry should examine its product. 

"You can complain about your car or your washing machine," she said. 

But the KB spokeswoman stressed that the provision is not to protect KB Home from bad publicity. It's to protect neighbors from damaged property values. 

And she says it is the homeowners' associations, not KB Home, that enforce the restrictions. 

Feel better?