Q: I live in a gated community of upscale, luxury homes. I bought my house directly from the builder, brand-new about two years ago. Our homeowners association (HOA) is just getting up and running, as the development gets close to being sold out.
Recently, my neighbor discovered on the Web that a sex offender was registered as living in the house next door to me. We did some research with the county and found out that the house has been converted into something similar to a halfway house for convicted sex and other violent offenders! So, now there are 10 men living there who all have criminal records (it’s a five-bedroom house).
I’m retired, so I feel like I’m trapped behind the gates with these guys all day every day, plus there are kids in a lot of these houses, and I’m fearful something very bad might happen. It’s very scary, and I always feel like I have to keep my doors and windows on lockdown when I’m at home. And when I’m gone I’m almost scared to come inside.
The HOA says there’s nothing they can do about it, but I just feel like that can’t be true. Was there anything I could have done when I bought my house to prevent this?
A: Unfortunately, there probably wasn’t anything you could have done during your transaction to avoid being in this situation right now. Many HOA documents have some restriction on commercial activity "inside the gates," but these can often be wielded to stop arguably reasonable home-office activity (i.e., the omission of such a clause is not necessarily a negative) and, even if the clause is there, it might not exclude a homeowner from using his or her home to operate a residential facility like the one you’re describing.
Many states require that homebuyers be advised of "Megan’s Law"; their right to know whether and where registered sex offenders live vis-à-vis the address of the property they are buying. My experience is that there are registered offenders — and offenders who are not, but should be, required to register — in almost every neighborhood, so the presence or absence of hits on the Megan’s Law map of your potential home’s surroundings can be misleadingly fear-provoking or fear-eliminating.
Plus, as you found out, registrants can move in at any time. Most states limit sex offenders’ residential possibilities only to the extent necessary to keep offenders outside of a certain radius surrounding schools, parks and playgrounds. Other than that, any home is fair game, and as you also found, the larger the home, the more attractive it might be to a facility or halfway house.
And, while I understand your not wanting to hear this right now, the fact is that these folks do need to live somewhere, and no one wants it to be next door to them. …CONTINUED
My advice to homebuyers concerned about registered sex offenders is always to keep a close eye on their sons and daughters regardless of how many registrants are or are not in the area. But checking the map before you bought would have done nothing to guarantee your safety or freedom from this issue in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, no safety guarantees exist in this world we live in. One of the sometimes brutal realities of owning a home is that the uses of neighboring properties might change over time.
Many times, a community’s security gates actually serve as "false sense of security" gates, to the extent that they cause residents to be lax about locking doors and windows, or the other basic safety measures they would be more diligent with if they lived outside the gates. So often, when showing houses, I find the gates to such communities standing wide open, or compromised in a number of other ways (which I won’t divulge here, for "security" reasons).
The only potential action — or rather, omission — that might have been in error, from my perspective, is failing to notice or participate in the neighborhood comment opportunities that many cities and counties offer prior to issuing a permit to operate such a facility. Some local governments do not require operators to solicit such comments; if that’s the case in your area, then there truly was nothing you could have done. However, other areas require operators to follow a codified protocol for aggressively notifying the neighbors of their plans, and soliciting the neighborhood’s comments for the permit-granting agency’s consideration prior to being allowed to open such a facility.
You might want to check with your local government to ensure that the neighbor comment requirements, if any, were met by the facility’s operator.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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