Full disclosure, my parents owned a motorhome and would load my sister and me in the motorhome every summer for week- and month-long trips. I have some great memories from these tips, but I also remember the motorhome sitting on our driveway on the rare occasions we were home. I’m sure that some of the neighbors were not pleased with the presence of a 38-foot Class A Four Winds motorhome. Had we lived in a condo or a subdivision with a homeowners association, we might not have been able to keep the motorhome parked on the driveway. That is because the governing documents for most condos and HOAs contain some level of restrictions on the types of vehicles that are allowed to park in the condo or subdivision. But what happens when the governing documents prohibit “trailers” generally? Is a prohibition against trailers sufficient to prohibit motorhomes? This blog article examines a case from the Michigan Court of Appeals that considered this very question.
Motorhomes Are Not Trailers
In Sylvan Glens Homeowners Ass’n v McFadden, 103 Mich App 118; 302 NW2d 615 (1981), Ralph McFadden parked his Winnebago motorhome in the driveway of his lot. The HOA demanded that he remove the motorhome from the driveway, alleging that the motorhome was prohibited under the following restrictive covenant:
No temporary building of any kind erected on any parcel in this subdivision shall at any time be used as a temporary or permanent residence. Nor shall any trailer be used or kept thereon. Nor shall any equipment or material be stored thereon after the structure is completed. Nor shall any boat be used or kept thereon unless kept within (sic) enclosed garage.
McFadden declined to remove his motorhome and the HOA filed a lawsuit against him. The complaint filed by the HOA classified the motorhome as a “Winnebago trailer.” The trial court concluded that the restrictive covenant prohibited McFadden from parking the motorhome on the driveway.
McFadden appealed to the Court of Appeals, which consulted the dictionary definitions of “trailer” and “motorhome” to determine whether the HOA’s restrictive covenant prohibited the motorhome from being parked on the lot. The dictionary defined a “trailer” in relevant part as “an automobile-drawn highway vehicle designed to serve wherever it is parked as a dwelling or as a place of business (as an office, laboratory, or field headquarters).” Meanwhile, “motorhome” was defined as “an automotive vehicle built on a truck or bus chassis and equipped as a self-contained traveling home.” Accordingly, trailers and motorhomes are distinct types of vehicles, and a prohibition on trailers would not apply to motorhomes. Therefore, the Court held that motorhomes were not trailers and the HOA’s restrictive covenant did not prohibit motorhomes from being parked on owners’ lots.
The Dissent Considered Motorhomes to Be Trailers
One of the judges on the Court of Appeals disagreed with the conclusion that motorhomes are not trailers. The dissent believed that the intent behind the HOA’s restrictive covenant should apply over the differences that arose when consulting the dictionary: “Dictionary definitions notwithstanding, in common parlance a trailer is often synonymous with a motor home.” According to the dissent, the deciding factor should not be the dictionary, but instead, whether the HOA’s restriction against trailers intended to prohibit “a general class of large vehicles which could become eyesores were they to be parked outside of numerous subdivision residences.” Indeed, the dissent believed that there was a distinction without a difference between trailers and motorhomes, and would have affirmed the trial court’s order.
The difference of opinions in the Sylvan Glens Homeowners Ass’n case shows that a motorhome is not a trailer, unless it is. If a judge considers the dictionary definitions of trailers and motorhomes to be controlling, then the outcome may be that a motorhome is not a trailer. But if a judge determines that it is common to refer to a motorhome as a trailer, then a motorhome may be a trailer. To avoid these issues, condo associations and HOAs should consider amending their governing documents to prohibit specific types of vehicles, such as motorhomes, and not rely on generalized terms such as trailers.
Michael T. Pereira is an attorney with Hirzel Law, PLC and focuses his practice on community association law. Mr. Pereira received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He then obtained his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, where he graduated second in his class and served as the Executive Editor of Outside Articles on the Detroit Mercy Law Review. After law school, Mr. Pereira worked as a research attorney at the Michigan Court of Appeals before clerking for the Honorable Patrick M. Meter and the Honorable Anica Letica in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Mr. Pereira can be reached at (248) 397-6596 or email@example.com.
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