A good friend of mine messaged me the other day about some drama they’re going through involving a duplex they purchased a year or two ago. It was another reminder of how happy I am to rent.
Last year, they had some remodeling done, and needed to install a gas meter. They checked with the community homeowners association (HOA) who offered no input or clear guidance on where it could be located on the property. Fast forward a year later, and they’re now being sued for an ‘unauthorized installation’.
Apparently, someone complained a year after the fact about the ‘looks’ of it, and so they gave my friend 30 days to move the meter and have it re-installed elsewhere, which will cost $15k. Otherwise, the HOA will have it moved and bill my friend accordingly (presumably far more than $15k). The HOA is not fessing up to the fact that they did not provide any guidance or guidelines the year prior when consulted prior to the initial installation of the meter, and has decided to pursue legal action. This dispute has been brewing for about 4 months and has now wound up in litigation. My friend is considering counter-suing for harassment and duress. I’m afraid if they do take this route however, they’ll find that the $15k to move the meter is a bargain compared to the legal fees they’ll incur trying to fight this, which is the unfortunate reality of our society. Lawsuits are nothing more than financial wars of attrition that favor the wealthy. Inevitably the party with the most financial resources is the favorite to win, or at least force a settlement in their favor.
The web is awash with stories of HOA tyranny and most Americans have either experienced the overzealous enforcement efforts of HOAs or know someone personally who has. The ubiquity of this theme has even made it into insurance ads. My dad used to live in a condo complex with a particularly grumpy ‘enforcer’ who went off on my brother for throwing a snowball into the pool. The pool had been stagnant, dirty, and unused all winter. I doubt one snowball was going to affect the already-terrible water quality much. It seems that the real issue there was the fact that the pool wasn’t properly winterized. My family crossed wires with her a few other times over really petty stuff.
In a condo complex I used to rent in, I remember an elderly lady who would take up a post on her balcony as a self-appointed ‘pool monitor’ of the pool below. “No splashing! No talking! No noise in the pool area!” Sheesh lady, what is it that you’re doing that requires absolute monastic silence in the neighborhood at noon on a summer holiday? Running a shrine? A recording studio? I don’t know if she was actually involved with HOA enforcement, but she seemed ‘the type’ that would relish wielding power to bring fellow neighbors to heel on petty stuff.
It’s funny to me that for all the talk of the ‘freedom’ of home ownership, and how this is the pinnacle of the ‘American Dream’, many Americans actually find themselves subject to dictatorial regimes once they move in. Anything from lawn length, to the color of childrens’ playhouses, to holiday decorations falls under the authoritarian purview of your not-so-friendly local neighborhood HOA, whose dandelion patrol squads scour the yards—lawsuits in hand—should you be so careless as to allow one to sprout in your lawn! So much for all that good ol’ American ‘freedom’ your newly-purchased home was supposedly wrapped in. The best part is, you get to pay mandatory dues to this autocratic regime for the privilege of being one of their subjects! The matter of mandatory union dues sure caused a fuss in workplaces, so it’s odd to me that mandatory HOA dues in ‘community places’ have yet to incite the same level of fury among homeowners.
Most of these enforcement efforts seem to focus around a neurotic paranoia of diminishing ‘property values’. As one commenter pointed out, this dictatorial micromanagement itself is what’s far more likely to decrease property values, more so than pink playhouses or Christmas lights left up on a neighbor’s house in June. Who cares? Having to deal with HOA gestapo is surely more detrimental to quality of life in the neighborhood, and therefore property values! Who wants to get sued every other week for petty crap? Ah, but, these are the joys of private property ownership I guess…
Which brings me to my point. Despite the endless lectures I’ve endured about what a dummy I am for “throwing my money away” renting, or “paying someone else’s mortgage”, I’ve come to realize there are many advantages of renting that suit me just fine. Home ownership sounds a lot like marriage to me. My married acquaintances are always asking if/when I’m going to get married, yet they constantly complain about how their spouses are driving them bonkers. Same with home ownership. Despite all the hype about it being the pinnacle of the American Dream, and the final step in one’s graduation to true adulthood, I sure have witnessed a ton of horror stories and heartache from friends and families throughout all stages of the great home ownership adventure. Ridiculous shenanigans in the acquisition phase include double-dealing relators, lawyers, lawsuits, endless rounds of offers and counter-offers, inspections, surprise work needed to pass inspections, paying to have properties inspected that then have the purchase fall through (multiple times) etc. If you are lucky enough to secure the mortgage and then subsequently the home, you then get the pleasure of dealing with banks, refinancing, and trying to sell the darn thing once you experience the last straw dealing with the HOA regime, or have to relocate, or simply can’t afford the mortgage anymore because the bottom has fallen out of the economy (again). Of course, because the market has tanked, you can’t sell it without almost giving it away and taking a huge loss, so you do the next best thing and try to rent it out. But, then you get to deal with property management companies—or, if you’re really adventurous—D.I.Y property management where you’re on the hook for either making maintenance and upkeep repairs yourself, or coordinating various contractors to take care of these. Obviously you then also have to manage tenants, deal with their issues, find new tenants when the previous ones move out, and at this point you are just absolutely loving this American Dream of property ownership! Maybe you’re lucky and manage to finally sell the property, but at this point, you’re almost willing to give it away just to be rid of it.
Like many other things in this country, the expenses of home ownership is increasingly the domain of the wealthy and affluent. Unless you have plenty of surplus cash on hand to ‘weather the storm’ and the volatile ups and downs and legal pitfalls, home ownership is an increasingly losing proposition. And, even if it’s not, is it really worth the stress?
“Oh, I know! I’ll just ‘flip’ houses to make money, I’ve always wanted to do that!” Well, this can quickly turn into a nightmare, as many people have discovered the hard way. Even if you do manage to turn a modelst profit, it hardly seems worth the risk, blood, sweat, and tears.
“Well alright then, I’ll just buy one and use it as an ‘investment property’ by listing it on Airbnb!” That might work, until it becomes illegal in the city your ‘investment’ property is located in, or something like COVID-19 puts the kibosh on the whole enterprise for the foreseeable future. Then, you’re back to trying to sell an asset depreciating in value in a bad market, likely to incur a loss. Even if you decide to hold onto it—even vacant—there’s maintenance and upkeep that has to be done in order to keep it from falling into dilapidation.
Personally, I have political reasons for not wishing to take part in this speculative private property ownership malarkey. I have no burning desire or urge to ‘own’ any property and I relish the day when people wisen up to the insane inefficiency and wastefulness of market-based real-estate and we do something like what Singapore has done to solve their housing problems and eliminate this curse of having to barter for shelter in a wacky market-based real-estate bazaar. Until then, we’re going to continue to have rampant homelessness and people pooping on sidewalks in this country, because there really are no other options.
People tell me I’m financially irresponsible for continuing to rent, and that I’m only enriching my landlord rather than myself. The part about enriching my landlord is true, but I’m not sold on how jumping into the private property market would be a benefit to me financially. It seems that there is a good chance of that becoming an even more expensive, losing proposition than simply renting. Ideally, I would prefer my ‘rent’ go to a publicly-held democratized housing initiative that benefits everyone like in Singapore, but until then, private landlords are simply what we have under the present and—dare I say—dysfunctional speculative market-driven real-estate reality.
Aside from a lack of conviction to become embroiled in the real-estate rigmarole myself as a potential buyer/seller, there are real practical aspects of renting that basically boil down to not having to deal with all the aforementioned drama. I don’t really have to interface with HOAs as a renter in most cases. If there is an issue with the actual building, it’s not my problem. If the building needs to have a gas meter moved, that’s not my problem. If my A/C or heating goes out, I might be inconvenienced by that until maintenance comes around to fix it—but it’s ultimately not my problem. That’s all on the landlord and/or property management to take care of. I have no desire for my own yard, and I hate mowing and lawn care chores—especially in the summer. In an apartment, that’s also not my problem, and if I do yearn to go frolic in grass, I can just go to one of the many parks in my neighborhood, which yet again, are not my problem to mow and maintain. I’ll happily pay my taxes to not have to mow the city parks and to (hopefully) pay good wages to those that do for everyone’s enjoyment. If a neighbor across the street threatens to sue my building’s owner because they don’t like the hue of color the owner has painted the building, that also isn’t my problem. Instead of spending my weekends mowing, arranging for the re-installation of gas meters, or staving off idiot HOA lawsuits, I can happily spend it doing literally anything else other than that.
Basically, all of the crap homeowners have to deal with is simply of no concern to me as a renter. Ultimately, what you’re paying for as a renter, is the ability and flexibility to leave and move somewhere else without worrying about listing and selling property, or having to manage and maintain it as a rental yourself. Of course I realize that for some people, it might make more sense to own a home, especially if they have families and kids. But, for where I am in my life at the moment, it makes no sense to incur the costs and—even more significant to me—the risks, stress, and headaches of ‘owning’ a home.