Originally Posted Spring 2008
Revised Fall of 2008
Description of Area of Life
To own a single family home is to have or possess as property the rights to a free-standing residential dwelling place and the surrounding area of its lot called the yard. Homes are most often purchased by individuals or single families as places to store personal belongings, sleep, eat, and spend free time.
Owning a single family home allows one privacy and personal space often unavailable in rented apartments, condominiums, or other shared units. Control over the living environment and atmosphere of the home benefits residents. A home can also be a symbol of an individual’s or family’s status because of its value which is based on the size, maintenance, and location of the home.
Regulations and Juridic Controls
Laws and regulations set at the federal, state or local level provide juridic controls for owning a home. In urban areas, homes are organized into groups based on their proximity to one another. These groups are called neighborhoods. At the local level, individual neighborhoods or collections of neighborhoods often form Homeowners’ Associations. A Homeowners’ Association is an elected group or organization of homeowners that governs a subdivision, development, or planned community. The association may collect fees from members to maintain common areas and enforce covenants, restrictions, and conditions instituted by the developer or the association itself. The regulations are listed in the home’s deed. Common areas can include parks, swimming pools, golf courses, and others.
Depending on the association to which a home owner belongs, membership may be voluntary or mandatory. One regulation that varies between individual neighborhoods designates where the home must be positioned on the lot. In one neighborhood on the West End of Billings, a house must sit no less than thirty feet from the front lot line, ten feet from the side, and twenty feet from the rear.1 Failure to comply with regulations of the Homeowners’ Association can result in fines or liens.
In Billings, the Code Enforcement Division of the Billings City Planning Department upholds laws and official standards governing maintenance of property. The property for which the owner is responsible includes the home, lot, sidewalk, curb, and gutter associated with the house.
One component of maintenance includes weed control. It is the duty of the owner or occupant of the home to remove, destroy or cut weeds or grass in excess of twelve inches high to a height of four inches or less. If the growth seems to be out of control the City Clerk can give the owner a notice to destroy the weeds. If the owner fails to remove the weeds, the city will remove them then charge the owner for the cost of removal, an additional administrative fee of twenty-five percent of the removal cost, plus a fine for the offense. If the fine is not paid, a lien can be placed on the house or the amount of the fine can be added to the taxes.
If a house is located on the corner of an intersection, any plants or fences on that corner are limited to a maximum height of three feet. Open foundations, swimming pools, wells, or cisterns on the property are required to be fenced in or properly covered. The designated address number of a home is required to be prominently displayed near the entrance which faces a public or private street. It must be in Arabic numerals of three and a half inches in height that are a contrasting color with the building. If the address is not displayed or can not be easily seen, the City Administration will give the owner a warning to correct it within twenty days or face misdemeanor charges and a twenty-five dollar fine.
Codes restricting excessive noise exist for the city of Billings as well. Making noise which disturbs or endangers the comfort, peace, or health of a person with normal and reasonable sensitivity in a residential area is illegal. Local law enforcement can charge the owner of the home responsible for the infraction with a warning or possible criminal charges.
Every homeowner is required by law to pay real estate taxes. The tax is assessed by multiplying property value by the tax rate set by the Montana legislature to determine the taxable value. The taxable value is then multiplied by the mill levies established by a variety of jurisdictions such as the local government and school districts. Failure to pay taxes can result in being charged with tax evasion which is punishable by fines or imprisonment. Most local laws and codes for homeowners can be found in the Code Enforcement section of the City of Billings website.2
Effects/Burdens on Society
For some homeowners, a lack of time or willingness to maintain the home or a lack of money to pay taxes, mortgage payments, or Homeowners’ Association dues causes stress to the individual or the family which, in turn, causes other social issues to arise. Furthermore, some people find the laws and regulations intrusive. These people believe that the laws and regulations limit their rights to private property that they believe should be respected in a just community by allowing them to do as they please with the property they own.3
Methods of Escaping Juridic Controls
Members of Homeowners’ Associations who disagree with rules and regulations can file lawsuits against Homeowners’ Associations as a way to gain exclusion from the codes. Other ways of avoiding the laws include falsifying records and statements regarding the home, ignoring tax statements, hiding forbidden activities or possessions, and failing to report structural changes to the home that substantially change the structure and, therefore, increase the taxable value. Some people use a home for business purposes to gain tax breaks.
One alternative that reduces the burden of owning an individual home is renting a home. This can include apartments, townhouses, condominiums, or hotel rooms. The landlord who temporarily leases the property to the tenant is usually responsible for maintenance, upkeep, and enforcement of codes. The tenant must pay rent when it is due and avoid damage to the property. Housing cooperatives are another alternative to individual ownership. In a cooperative, a corporation or other legal entity owns real estate in one or more residential buildings and gives shareholders the rights to the occupancy of one unit each. Usually occupants are subject to lease agreements. Members are relied upon to help one another with the maintenance and upkeep of units.45