House Rules: Things You Can’t Do in the U.S.

(Mailbox Modern)

Is your mailbox in the right spot? Get out the measuring tape! (Mailbox Modern)

A lot of Brits are surprised at the amount of rules that govern just living in a house in the U.S. I’m not just talking about restrictions on loud parties till the wee hours either.

Would you believe that in many locales, you’re not allowed to hang your washing on the line? (Brits everywhere are throwing their hands up in horror.) Homeowners associations, condo rules, landlord contracts and zoning laws can all ban the humble washing line. Approximately 60 million Americans are thus oppressed. (I have to admit that in Chicago, it’s usually too hot and humid or too darn cold to attempt to dry anything outside, but that’s beside the point.)

Never fear, a right-to-dry movement has sprung up in several states, rendering the local bans unenforceable and urging would-be peggers to push for change in their communities; a veritable “battle for common sense over aesthetics,” no less.

And you can’t just set up any old mailbox either. Oh no. The United States Postal Service has very specific rules on stand-alone mailboxes, which are common in suburban and rural communities. The mailbox itself must be one of three approved sizes, which fortunately, come in Traditional and Contemporary styles. The post on which the mailbox is mounted must be six inches from the curb and 42-46 inches high. The USPS doesn’t govern wall-mounted mailboxes, but apparently you’re meant to consult with your mail carrier for placement guidance, and check for local or community regulations on top of that. For example, the village of Germantown Hills, Illinois prohibits mailboxes mounted in brick enclosures, while my in-laws in another state are required to mount theirs in brick.

(Brick Masters)

Nobody can knock this box over. (Brick Masters)

And then there’s the Landmarks Commission or Committee, the blight of many a homeowner in older, usually urban, areas. You don’t have to be living in an ancient mansion to require permission from Landmarks; many cities have landmarked or historic sections and woe betide residents who dare to change their front door without the Commission’s blessing. And it’s not just doors; here’s Louisville, Kentucky’s Landmark ruling on new windows:

Solid vinyl replacement windows are not permitted on street-visible facades. These facades generally have the most character-defining features including the windows. If existing windows cannot be repaired, they should be replaced with wood (or wood windows with vinyl or aluminum cladding) that match the existing configuration and operation of the original windows. Other historic materials, such as steel, are reviewed on a case by case basis.

If you’re moving into an old, urban house, find out if there are landmark rules before making any changes, because they can, and do, make you undo your renovations (as well as fining you).

What you do with your property is also tightly governed, and many local governments prohibit commercial use (including small businesses) of a residence. In addition, many localities do not allow commercial vehicles to be parked on residential streets except for temporary loading and unloading. Boulder, Colorado’s new BuildSmart regulations aim for efficient energy use and strictly govern the building materials used in residential buildings. A few hapless residents have been fined thousands of dollars for installing hot tubs that aren’t solar heated, and pools (over 200 sq. feet) that have the wrong type of cover on. Boulder also has a Noxious Weeds list, (no, not that type of weed) which states: “It is the duty of all property owners to implement a noxious weed management plan using integrated methods.” Gulp. I wonder how many Boulderians* have a noxious weed management plan?

Having said that, it is Boulder

*Made-up name.

Have you had any housing issues? 

See More:
A Glossary and Guide: Home-Buying in the U.S.
Brits in America: How to Set Up Home From Scratch
10 People You Need to Know in Your American Neighborhood

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Jane

    Some of those Home Owners Associations (HOA) are ridiculous. When I lived in a suburban area in California our HOA had dumb rules such as regulating the color of your window draperies. They could only be white so that when closed the neighborhood had a uniform look. Also, if someone drove any type of work vehicle with a logo or name of their company on the side it had to be parked in the garage out of sight at all times, never on the driveway where it could visually offend. If it was too large to fit in the garage, like a larger truck or van, it had to be parked on the street outside of the HOA’s territory.

    • Karen Frenchy

      After this article, I just read the rules and regulations from our HOA = they are ridiculous. “Residents shall use only white or off-white blinds or white liners on windows facing the outside of the unit”, “utility storage must be freestanding (not attached to any fence or building).” [not safe at all!]…
      Aaaah balconies: Residents are not permitted to store bicycles, on the front entrances or the balconies in the front of the unit, Residents are not permitted to store health equipment, tools, interior types of furniture, appliances, pool toys and cleaning items on their front balconies, Residents must receive written permission before installing any curtains, blinds, screens or any other type of covering on their balcony, Fake flowers or plants that are faded must be removed, Hanging clothes, sheets, towels, rugs, etc. on balconies or balcony railings is prohibited etc…
      RI-DI-CU-LOUS!

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Do they say what the consequences are? I dread to think.

        • Karen Frenchy

          Consequences? Here they are: 1) The unit owner will be sent a First Notice upon inspection of a said violation requiring immediate cure of the violation. If the matter is not cured immediately, the unit owner will be sent a second notice. 2) The Second Notice will advise the unit owner that he has the right to request a hearing before the Board of Directors. Said request for a hearing must be received in writing within 30 days from the date of the letter. The Notice will also advise the owner that an assessment ranging from $25.00 to $200.00 will be imposed if the violation is not cured. If the violation is not cured within 30 days, the unit owner will be sent a Third Notice.. etc until 5th notice (more fees paid tot he HOA). If it is not solved after the 5th notice, the Board will hire an attorney and file a lawsuit against the owner. Of course, the cost will be paid by the owner -_-

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            Ouch!

  • DaveVanK

    It’s not just HOA’s our town bans the keeping of bee hives (in case as stray bee gets out and stings a child who is allergic) and chicken (in case the chickens attract a coyote who may then savage a child)

    Apparently it’s ok to keep handguns though so let’s home this bee sting allergic child with a propensity to attracting coyotes has better luck there

  • maggie

    Where I live no problems with hanging out the laundry, no problems where we used to live in Alabama either. To keep chickens you need to live on 2 acres but for a horse you only need 1 acre!!!
    Mailboxes, as long as they are the correct height no problems. We did get our carriers opinion when we replaced our box in the spring as we mounted it on a tree as we were fed up with snow ploughs continually knocking them down.

  • Alex

    I feel so sorry for people who have to deal with HOA. Out in the country you can hang your laundry on the line, have a cow or barn shaped mailbox and do a lot of fun this like breed rabbits, paint your house camo, and shoot deer models with BB guns from your back porch.

  • MontanaRed

    HOA’s are a control freak’s/power grabber’s wet dream. Having crudely said that, isn’t there quite a bit of regulation on historic buildings’ (Grade 1, 2, etc.) renovations and repairs in GB?

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Yes, but I don’t know anyone who’s told what color blinds to have at their windows. LOL

  • Brittany

    I never knew there were places that didn’t allow you to hang up laundry. You’re allowed where I live.