By Martha McPartlin
The couple didn't know, however, that they had bought "the house from hell," as the neighbors called it, a once rat-infested dwelling with a hefty list of covenant violations and long history with the Columbia Association's legal department.
Nelson and Freeman also didn't expect to discover that village officials had informed agents for HUD of the violations in a letter, but that the agents in turn had neglected to inform the couple of the problems before they bought the house.
Officials from HUD said their agents never received the letter. And in any case, officials said HUD agents, unlike private sellers, are not required to find out whether property they sell is in violation of Columbia covenants.
The couple's plight touches on a number of broader issues, including the scarcity of affordable housing in the region and the slow pace at which some of Columbia's dilapidated houses are repaired, despite official efforts to ensure such improvements.
The couple, who are engaged to be married, say that, in this case, they hoped to be part of the solution to such problems: They had found an affordable home and, by moving into it, would improve it and, by extension, the neighborhood.
Owen Brown covenant regulations require that the house's gutters, lamppost, fence, chimney and other cosmetic elements be fixed or replaced as soon as possible. The couple, therefore, must spend $3,000 to bring the outside of the home _ which is in a lot better shape than the badly deteriorated interior _ into compliance.
Columbia's covenants, which dictate the standard of upkeep the exterior of each home must meet, are in place to keep property values high and avoid situations such as the one found at the home on Bright Soul.
But covenants aren't what has made Nelson feel, in her words, "gypped."
She reserves that feeling for HUD, which, according to Owen Brown officials, knew about the violations and failed to inform Nelson and Freeman of them before the couple bought the house.
"I feel kind of tricked," Nelson, 27, said. "It's a life decision we're making."
Since hearing of Nelson and Freeman's experience, Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, Owen Brown's representative on the Columbia Association board of directors, and County Council member Guy Guzzone, whose district includes the village, are looking for ways to ensure that, in the future, HUD discloses such covenant violations up front.
"You hate to see a situation where people acquire a property and not know about other issues that are going to cost them money," Guzzone said. "It seems particularly problematic when the federal government is involved."
Hearts set on Columbia
Nelson and Freeman made the decision long ago to buy a HUD house and invest the time and money to repair it. Nelson, an Owen Brown native, and Freeman, who recently learned of James Rouse and became enamored of the developer's vision for the town, had set their hearts on raising children in Columbia.
For more than two years they checked the federal agency's Web site, where HUD lists properties that have been purchased from owners who have defaulted on HUD-insured home loans.
"We want a mortgage payment where we don't have to scrape and I don't have to get a part-time job," said Freeman, 41, who works for Rockville's water and sewer department.
The couple found the four bedroom home on Bright Soul, bid on the property and won with a $145,500 offer. They immediately applied for a 203k loan from HUD, which would give them money to begin making improvements.
Their request was denied. As of Jan. 1, HUD will no longer give loans for homes that have mold because of liability issues surrounding potentially toxic mold growth. Although there is mold along their basement walls, Nelson and Freeman say they don't believe it is toxic.
"We said, 'OK, we're troopers, we'll fix it up as we go along,'" said Nelson, who works for a financial services company.
Not long after hearing that their loan was denied, the couple was visiting the house when a neighbor introduced herself and was shocked to hear that Nelson and Freeman had bought the property.
The house has been a blight in the neighborhood for years, the neighbor told the couple. Rumors of drug activity were rampant and neighbors routinely complained about the house to the county Health Department.
"When she told us that I was scared silly," Nelson said.
Nelson called village covenant advisor Phyllis Kepner and received a three-page history of violations by, and legal action against, its absentee owner, and a copy of a letter Kepner sent to HUD's local representatives asking the representatives to warn the new owners about the violations. The letter was dated Oct. 4, nearly eight weeks prior to Nelson and Freeman signing the purchasing agreement and turning over a $1,000 non-refundable deposit.
"They knew everything before they sold it," Kepner said of HUD officials.
HUD spokesman John Carpenter said the agency and its agents have a policy of full disclosure for any information that is known about its homes, which are always sold "as is." However, the responsibility for finding out about covenant violations ultimately falls to the buyer, Carpenter said.
"If we can, we try to disclose," Carpenter said. "But we try to make it clear to people that if they are buying our property they need to do their own research."
Although the situation Nelson and Freeman are in is not common, it is not without precedent.
Joyce Purvis, covenant advisor for Wilde Lake, had a similar experience with a home sold by the Veterans Administration in the village. Its new owner also was greeted with a list of village covenant violations.
"He was none too happy about it," Purvis said. "Had he been forewarned, he wouldn't have been so upset."
Covenant advisors from other villages echoed that experience, saying the responsibility often falls on them to contact potential buyers and warn them of outstanding violations.
Debbie Nix, covenant advisor for Hickory Ridge, said she has encountered new HUD homeowners who didn't know they had become part of a homeowners association.
"People were upset that I was the one informing them there was an association," Nix said.
Freeman and Nelson are waiting another month to close on the house, in order to earn a few more paychecks before they move in. Because their combined salaries put them above the poverty line, they do not qualify for assistance from the Maryland Housing Authority.
So, for now, planning a wedding will have to wait.
They have asked CA and the village for financial help and say officials have been sympathetic, but have little to offer. It is likely the most the couple will get from Columbia officials is time to make the repairs and understanding.
"I'm so happy somebody bought this house," Kepner said. "If they can only do one thing every six months, eventually it will get done."
E-mail Martha McPartlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.