While there is certainly a place for regulation, One Fine Jay notes that it can often go too far. He cites the example of homeowners’ associations (HOAs), a phenomenon that I had never encountered before moving to Northern Virginia. While I understand the desire to maintain a certain level of aesthetic control, these things quickly become a nuisance, as busybodies with nothing to do but monitor the Christmas decorations of their neighbors use them to annoy others. Frankly, I could do without my neighbors putting up colored lights and plastic celebratory ornaments. But property ownership should carry with it a certain amount of freedom.

While HOAs are theoretically private, voluntary associations they are quasi-governmental organizations. For instance, something as simple as getting a deck built takes several months because I first had to get approval from the HOA–whose approval committee meets only once a month during the winter–before the county would issue a license. Why the HOA has any say over the government’s issuance of a license is unclear.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Rhoads says:


    What gives HOA’s their clout is that membership in most is mandatory and not “voluntary”. That is, most HOA’s are created by a set of covenants running with the title to the home’s lot. These covenants are filed in the land records of the county in which the lot is located, and are specifically referred to in the deed passing title to the new owner. To be enforceable, the covenants must describe, with reasonable specificity, the purposes of the HOA, the composition of its membership, and its powers. Unfortunately, most people either don’t read them, or don’t understand their implications prior to taking title to property governed by them. Before buying a home in an HOA community, it is therefore a good idea to spend a few hundred bucks for consultation with an attorney who knows the “ins and outs” of such communities.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Interesting. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone is stuck with an HOA here. And there’s not time to do all the checking anyway–houses are typically sold the day they go on the market at or above the asking price. Very much a seller’s market here.

  3. Jim says:

    I just bought a townhouse last month in Northern Virginia. I am now a member of the HOA. Several interesting issues. In VA HOAs do give you an easy out if you get cold feet. The seller is responsible for giving you a set of the HOA guidelines and the buyer has 48 hours to accecpt them. If he or she does not like them, they can terminate the sale with no loss of good faith money.
    Secondly, the best thing you can do about HOAs is to join the various boards and attend the meetings.

  4. CGHill says:

    I live in what the city calls an Urban Conservation District, which is basically an Historic District without all those pesky Historic Buildings cluttering up the place. We have some rules set by city ordinance, but they’re definitely not strict enough to outlaw Christmas lights or (some) lawn gnomes. The local neighborhood association did push for this, and they tell me more than half the residents supported the establishment of the district, which is remarkable considering that membership is not mandatory (and dues are a nominal ten bucks a year).

  5. James Joyner says:

    Mine are $59 a month! That does cover garbage and recycling pickup as well as common area maintenance, including snow removal.

  6. OF Jay says:

    Thanks for the link, Doc. I was waiting on opinion to come in from other peeps before I ask the question that’s really bugging me: WHY?!

    In what’s name is it that one gives up the right to choose a trash can, or patio furniture that you want for your home, at least in the Columbia, MD case that I briefly alluded to. That dude’s home was an apartment unit.

    It just annoys me that a lot of it is more an aesthetic matter than it is one of safety or common decency. In my neighborhood we can only install in-ground pools and we have to have privacy fences for those. That makes sense. Restrictions on trash cans, patio furniture, and, though I grumbly admit, Winnie The Pooh blow-up dolls and windmills, don’t, at least for me.

  7. Fredrik Nyman says:

    In theory, the HOA rules are for your own good as a homeowner. The idea is to have rules to prevent undesirable behavior in the community, then enforce those rules.

    So what’s undesirable behavior? Generally, anything that brings the neighborhood in disrespute; the guy who doesn’t mow his lawn, the guy who uses his yard as a salvage yard; the guy who runs a business from his home and has lots of customers coming by every day; the guy who rents out his 2-bedroom house to 20 mexican illegals; the guy who builds a monstruous, butt-ugly steel shed and put it in the back yard, and so on.

    And why is it undesirable? Because it affects everyone else’s property negatively for one reason or other — lower property values, more traffic, neighborhood looking run-down, and so on.