Sam and Maria Farran, who live in Olde Belhaven, a community in Fairfax County, VA, spent four years in a desperate legal battle with their homeowners association. The struggle began when the HOA decided to fine the Farrans for posting a political sign somewhat outside the HOA SIGN-size parameters. The battle ensued. Ultimately the Farran’s won and the community lost, shutting down the home owners association altogether and costing the residents there $400,000.
On December 15, 2012, the Farrans appeared on a Weekly Radio Show in Fairfax, Virginia, “On the Commons.” The show is dedicated to discussing the many issues surrounding mandatory home owner associations.
Here are some of the comments shared by Maria and Sam during the hour-long interview.
Maria: It’s hard to [be engaged in a battle with an HOA] so do anything you can to avoid it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Get a good attorney and make sure you have plenty of money. We were told in the beginning we would lose — we would lose everything, including our home.
Sam: We have an arrogant board that never wanted to be challenged. Our case started because we challenged them.. probably a dozen people before us packed up and left the community [rather than fight back].
Maria: We got a letter saying the size of a sign in our yard was wrong. There is a rule that we must have a 1-foot x 1-foot sign. So we cut it in half. The next day, after the election, we took it down. [Later] we saw the emails the board exchanged during the discovery process. [We learned that] the board felt this was a “teachable moment.” [We weren’t troublemakers]. We’d always gotten along with everyone in the community.
Sam: I was president of the board once and on the board for other years. My priority was to help the community. But over the years, people with common sense and logic left the board and were replaced by a few hardened people plus several followers. The question [of the new board] became: “Who are we going to write a letter to? Who are we going to fine?”
Maria: So, the board called a well-known legal expert who offered to come in and speak to them for free to help them “enforce the rules.” The board then “came up with a resolution.” There was no meeting, no discussion. The end result was the ability to fine us [for having posted the sign. [During the long court proceedings] we had great judges: Nordlund, Roush, Ney, Thacher — fair and square, legal professionals. We got a fair deal. When you buy into an association it is a contract, but both sides — including the board — have to abide by them.
Sam: We were in the right. We had a plan all along. It was our money we were spending; the board was spending others’ money. If we had started losing, we would have stopped. But we never lost. We thought the other side would come to their senses and stop, but that didn’t happen. It was not only the Board.
Maria: People don’t like conflict. [Neighbors] would say, “we want to support you, but we don’t want to get involved.”
Sam: We found bullets in our back yard. I have lived through a Civil War, so the bullets didn’t scare me.
Maria: We had the police and the county inspectors called on us. One of the county inspectors said, “You go get them [the board].” They don’t like HOAs. One of the people we talked to said, “We get fined for having spider webs on our windows.” People think HOAs are a joke and we were silly for fighting. Until it happens to you and it’s your life, your house. It’s America. It’s our relationship with our neighbors and it’s precious. And HOAs destroy communities.
Sam: The basic fight started with the sign and then our roof was leaking and then we wanted to put up a deck.
Maria: We wanted to put up a new roof and we went to a meeting and that’s when this “due process resolution” was in there. The idea of the people on the board running around with clipboards and then fining people — this was so unAmerican to me. So we went to our attorney who told us neither the state law nor the covenants allow [a fine created by this secret resolution]. The board denied us our architectural request for the roof leak repair approval and they fined us for the sign issue. Judge Thacher not only denied them the demur on the fines, we were able to come in afterwards and file for summary judgement. What he wrote was so bad for them and good for us that we were able to come in and file for summary judgement. By then we had a lot of discovery where we found out how the board made their decisions. The board then started doing all these things in fighting us that [added up to] were financial mismanagement. So we filed another lawsuit. All along there were motions to compel and the [board] fought us every step of the way. They spent $180,000 fighting for $15/day fines, which they were never going to use.
Sam: HOA is a business with no customer service.
Maria: Judge Nordlund wrote 10 pages about the financial mismanagement. That opinion was dramatic. I don’t know why they fought on things they were obviously going to lose on. I don’t know why they were doing that: It wasn’t a business decision, it wasn’t logical. I think it’s because they were spending [the association’s] money. So, then we went to trial on the architectural issues. It was just four days November 14-16, 2011. Judge Nordlund’s [opinion] questioned the [HOA president’s] credibility, saying, “The President was just totally ignorant of his responsibilities … his decisions came from pure arrogance.” So we won that and they were enjoined from keeping us from building our decks.
Sam: Before the bankruptcy, we were told [the association] might go to the Supreme Court or declare bankruptcy. They did both. Their fight was like the Japanese soldiers in the second World War who stayed in their caves.
Maria: So [the HOA] declared Chapter 7 … they thought we would never get our money. But instead they have had to put up sale of the [neighborhood] common area to pay us. Still, we are not completely whole [financially]. But they did not win on anything.
Sam: I think their strategy was to run us out of money … or to shame us. One guy told me that people get shamed by the association into leaving [the community].
Maria: If you are thinking of fighting your association never get personal, do not take it personally. They will try to shame you, to isolate you, to hurt you. But never write or say anything they can use to hurt you in court. We learned a lot about people: who’s loyal, who is your friend, who wants to help but doesn’t want to make it their fight.
Sam: The first advice: Don’t buy a home with an HOA.
Maria: These associations will crumble on their own. I was reading about some of these [HOA] regulations in an area in Richmond .. about the color of your house or to have to ask somebody in order to do anything. In our neighborhood, another batch of houses — also called Olde Belhaven — were built before ours, in the mid 60s. They have no association there and guess what? That community has higher housing values than our section. It isn’t HOAs that protect values. It’s location. Here, we have now done away with the association, we’ve built our deck and repair our roof and we’re very happy. The board has been dissolved and as far as I’m concerned, it’s over. All hell has not let loose and the houses in the area are selling without the association. We’re happy and so grateful to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which confirmed Judges Thacher and Nordlund, which our association had called “biased and unprofessional.”
Maria: [If you’re going to challenge the HOA] put it in perspective and if you have to walk away, walk away. If you can settle, settle. It’s hard out there; there’s not a lot of information. This [radio] show let’s people know they’re not alone.
Sam: It’s like David and Goliath. Your HOA and the CAI (Community Associations Institute) is big business.
Maria: The people in power are down in Richmond. Be in touch with your state legislators. They are down there rewriting the laws to respond to people winning [against HOAs].
Sam: At the age I’m at now, I’ve never been sued before. It’s not my personality. But even a squirrel — when you put it in a corner — it will fight back.
For more details and background, read an article — and the pursuant 5,000+ comments — published in The Washington Post on February 9.
For a podcast of the full “On the Commons” broadcast, listen here.
Additional analysis of homeowner association law can be found here and here.