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When your home is not your castle Covenants can help, or hinder owners


You just bought a home in a lovely neighborhood and decided to put up a swing set for your kids. Or maybe you want a fence for your dog or to paint the house brown. No problem, right? After all, it is your house, and whoever heard of laws against things like that?

But your house might not be the castle you thought it was if you are one of 80 million Americans living in a community with restrictive covenants on your property.

Covenants are legal clauses written into the property deed that require or prevent certain uses. Covenants, for instance, could prevent a single-family home from being split up into apartments or being used as a place of business.

And if you violate the restrictions, you could get a nasty note from your association ordering you to yank down the swings, keep Fido inside and paint the house beige, not brown.

For the second or third owners of a house, it is easy for covenants to be lost among the mounds of papers that accompany a house settlement.

Homeowners associations usually exist whenever a neighborhood has common property or restrictions on changes to the property. Condominiums and town houses almost always have an association to maintain commonly owned property. In addition to halls, walkways and entrances, commonly owned amenities include swimming pools, clubhouses, tennis courts, playgrounds, park or nature areas, exercise facilities and lakes.

AThe builder usually organizes the association and then turns over control to the residents after most of the development is sold.

In addition to traditional homeowners associations, many communities form voluntary neighborhood associations to give themselves a larger, unified voice in local government, and homes located in historic districts may find government and community groups who are very vocal and armed with strict rules about property changes or additions.

Probably the granddaddy of traditional homeowners associations in this area is the mammoth Columbia Association. Celebrating its 25th birthday this June, the Columbia Association encompasses an area with a population of 75,000 people and maintains more than 2,000 acres of open space. Property owners pay a fee of 75 cents per $100 of assessed value for maintenance.

Within the larger Columbia Association are nine area associations. Those associations often break into even smaller sub-groups. One of the first associations established is the Village of Wilde Lake in Columbia 25 years ago.

Joseph Rutter, director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, said the Columbia Association is also a good communication network because it is a well-run organization. "If it's not well-run, it could be a fiasco," he said.

Mr. Rutter said some associations that do not own common property sometimes disband by canceling dues and not enforcing covenants.

While most associations are well-run, some get entangled in power struggles and law suits.

When Thomas E. Mays Jr.'s employer moved from Towson to Owings Mills two years ago, Mr. Mays thought it would be a

good idea to relocate near his new job. He decided to switch from renting to owning, and bought a condominium at the Gardens at Owings Mills, located on Tarragon Road in Reisterstown.

Last spring when he couldn't get his leaky roof fixed and noticed that the neglected grass was reaching 3 feet without a mower in sight, Mr. Mays said he started wondering where his condo fees were going.

He eventually found out that the Massachusetts-based developer was out of cash and difficult to reach. With the help of a lawyer, Mr. Mays tracked down the developer and called the first membership meeting.

Now, Mr. Mays is president of the condominium council and sits on the board of directors, but the developer still owns about half of the development property and problems remain, Mr. Mays said.

Even faced with potential headaches, people want the amenities a homeowners association can offer. While numbering just 500 in the early 1960s, the number of associations tripled in the last decade and now number 150,000, according to estimates by the Community Associations Institute. The institute predicts the number of associations will reach 225,000 by the year 2000.

Before you buy

If you are thinking of buying a house within the boundaries of a homeowners association, the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va., suggests that you consider the following:

* Talk to your potential neighbors and ask them if they have had any problems with the developer.

* Make sure you understand any legal documents you are asked to sign.

* Look at the amenities offered and decide how much you will use them.

* Examine the association's budget. Determine what it covers and decide if the assessment is reasonable. Local chapters of the Community Association Institute can direct you to lawyers who practice community association law.

* Find out who manages the association. Larger groups usually hire an on-site manager. Other associations rely on volunteers.

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