When Sherry Loeffler looks out four large casement windows in her townhouse overlooking Lake Wylie, she can watch deer, the occasional fox or bald eagle, and egrets and blue herons that regularly fish in the cove.
But that rarely brings her peace. A dispute with her homeowners association over those windows has brought years of anxiety.
The trouble began in 2019, when Loeffler had new vinyl windows installed according to plans approved by the HOA for her community, the Yachtsman on Lake Wylie. Then, she contends, the association reneged on its approval, ordering her to replace her windows at her own expense to conform with most in the community.
This February, she won the first round in a court battle that isn’t over. A Mecklenburg County judge backed her claim that the HOA had approved the windows and ordered the association to pay her attorney fees, which the HOA has yet to do.
Her attorney says the case holds lessons for those who choose to fight homeowners associations.
HOAs make and enforce rules in a growing number of neighborhoods. One in four North Carolinians now live in HOA communities, and legal experts say tensions between residents and their homeowners associations appear to be on the rise.
“You’ve got to have some staying power in order to win a legal battle with an HOA,” said Loeffler’s attorney, Thomas Thurman, who has represented both homeowners and HOAs in such disputes.
No state or federal agencies oversee HOAs, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice. And while homeowners can sue associations, that doesn’t happen often because it’s expensive. HOAs typically worry less about the cost of litigation, Thurman said, because they can use the association’s insurance or the dues paid by property owners to cover those expenses.
“If I didn’t have the money to fight them, they would have taken my house,” said Loeffler, a 51-year-old single mother, who choked up while describing what might have happened.
The view from the windows Sherry Loeffler had installed in her townhome in 2019. She says the HOA approved the windows, then ordered her to remove them – at her own expense – after she’d installed them.
Judge cancels lien, $100-a-day fines
Loeffler, who plans events and does other work for banking executives, was living in a Gaston County apartment about seven years ago when she began thinking about buying a home of her own. A self-described “water baby,” she searched online for lakefront homes and was thrilled to find a three-story townhouse built above a cove on Lake Wylie.
In 2019, several years after moving to the neighborhood, Loeffler sought approval from the HOA to replace rotted windows that overlooked the lake. She submitted plans for the windows, along with a diagram from Home Depot, which she’d chosen to do the installation work.
In June that year, the HOA’s management company informed Loeffler by email that her request had been “approved as submitted.” That August, Home Depot installed the four windows.
Soon afterward, the HOA’s management company sent a letter to Loeffler informing her that her new windows were “non-compliant” and needed to be “cosmetically equivalent” to others in her building.
Each new 28-inch by 68-inch casement window held a single pane of glass — not two panes of glass like many neighboring windows. Each needed to be replaced or modified to look the same, the management company said.
Loeffler felt the HOA had reneged on its approval, but offered a compromise. She would replace the windows to conform with what the association wanted — as long as they would cover the $2,250 replacement cost. But the HOA refused.
Instead, the association began imposing $100 daily fines in 2020, and by the following year the total had climbed to nearly $12,000. When the HOA put a lien on her house for that amount, Loeffler knew they could foreclose on her.
Sherry Loeffler holds the notice of the lien that her HOA put on her home after fining her nearly $12,000 – over windows that she contends they approved. A Mecklenburg County judge ordered the HOA to remove the lien.
State courts data indicates that the Yachtsman HOA filed foreclosure actions against homeowners at least three times since 2018. Those cases were dismissed, the data shows, but it’s not clear why.
Loeffler hired a lawyer to fight the case, borrowing from her 401K to pay her legal fees. He argued her case before a mediator and, later, a district court judge — and won both times.
Ruling on some claims, Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Ty Hands in February ordered the HOA to remove the lien, cancel the fines and reimburse Loeffler for the $12,675 she had spent on legal fees.
In court documents, the HOA has denied the heart of Loeffler’s allegations. The windows she had installed did not match the plans she submitted, it contends. Judge Hands rejected that argument.
After reaching out to an HOA board member for comment, a Charlotte Observer reporter received an emailed response from Kenneth Love, the association’s attorney:
“No further contact should be made to any of the individual board members. At this time, the matter with Ms. Loeffler is in litigation and in fact she is represented by very capable counsel. We are unable to provide any comments as we are in the middle of active litigation.”
Who’s responsible for the eyesore?
The HOA said in a court filing that neighbors had complained that Loeffler’s windows “defeated the common scheme of the building.”
“The building Plaintiff’s home is in, is a highly visible home and has an effect on the property values in the community,” the HOA argued in its court filing. “Plaintiff’s window is the only window that is not uniform in her building.”
But Loeffler said the HOA is responsible for the biggest eyesore on the exterior of her townhome.
The association had originally agreed to paint the outside of her windows beige so that they would match the rest of the building, she said. But after objecting to Loeffler’s windows, the HOA refused to paint them. So the windows remain white — a sharp contrast with the rest of the building.
The windows on Sherry Loeffler’s townhome, second from the right, are white – a sharp contrast with the rest of the building. She says her HOA had originally agreed to paint the windows beige so that they would match the rest of the building. But after objecting to the windows Loeffler had installed, the HOA has refused to paint them, she said.
Loeffler’s lawsuit also alleges that the HOA has failed to “evenly enforce” its rules. Several other townhomes in her neighborhood have windows that don’t match those of their neighbors, she notes.
The HOA acknowledged in a court filing that previous board members “used their positions to make approval for themselves and their friends that were inappropriate.” But it notes that its most recent boards have ousted those members “to ensure equal enforcement.”
More disputes, over rain damage
Loeffler also contends HOA leaders have at times neglected the very thing they are supposed to protect: the value of the community’s townhomes.
After a massive storm in 2021 sent rainwater flooding into a number of homes, the HOA sent out a contractor, who began removing water-damaged floors. Then, abruptly, the work stopped, Loeffler says.
When she and the other homeowners complained, Love, the HOA attorney, sent a letter stating that the association was not responsible for any repairs to the interior of their homes.
The homeowners — with floors ripped out — were now on their own.
The HOA’s failure to clear clogged gutters caused the water to enter her home, Loeffler’s suit alleges. And the contractor told her the association would take care of the repairs, her complaint states. The HOA disputes those claims, too.
The flooring that had been in place at Loeffler’s home beforehand was waterproof and less than two years old, she said, so it merely needed to be dried out with fans. Instead, she said, she had to pay more than $5,000 to replace the flooring that the contractor ripped out.
A costly fight
Sherry Loeffler poses for a portrait near her townhouse at Lake Wylie. She has been mired in a lengthy court fight after her HOA hit her with nearly $12,000 in fines – over windows that she says they approved. “I want other homeowners to know this can happen to them,” she said. “And if they don’t have the money to fight it, they could lose their homes.”
Because of her legal costs, Loeffler had to delay helping her teenage daughter pay for college and a car, she said. The HOA’s lien also kept her from refinancing her 2,000-square-foot home — or selling it in the hot housing market two years ago.
But the toll extended beyond her bank account. She began taking anxiety medication to deal with the stress of it all, she said. In a letter submitted to the court, Loeffler’s doctor said she had suffered from panic attacks and sleep difficulties — and that the ordeal with her HOA has been a major source of her stress.
She feels less comfortable spending time at the neighborhood pool these days because her fight with the HOA has brought her unwanted attention. “Aren’t you the window lady?” some neighbors in her 200-plus townhome community now ask her.
Loeffler said she plans to push for changes that will help others in her position. She’ll ask state lawmakers to create a panel to investigate complaints about HOAs — so that homeowners like her don’t have to spend so much time and money fighting back, she said
“I want other homeowners to know this can happen to them. And if they don’t have the money to fight it, they could lose their homes,” she said. “HOAs shouldn’t be allowed to have this kind of power.”
News & Observer data reporter David Raynor contributed.
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