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We studied this case in my 1L (i.e. first year of law school) property course.

I am curious about the background on this case. I would've expected that her executor or beneficiaries would've had an interest in seeing the property preserved, but in the case summary we read they are silent, and instead the neighbors bring forward the suit.

Does anyone have additional history and context on this one?

The full text of Eyerman v. Mercantile Trust Co., 524 S.W.2d 210 (Mo. App. 1975) can be found here.

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    Just curious, what did they go over in the "case study"? Jan 24 at 15:13
  • @MichaelHall The focus was on "the right to destroy" and its limitations. The larger context is the "bundle of rights" that make up property rights. This author and professor focused on the rights to use, transfer, exclude, and destroy, and the degrees to which the courts would recognize and limit each.
    – JoshuaD
    Jan 30 at 7:45

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Why did the neighbors rather than the beneficiaries object to the property destruction in Eyerman v. Mercantile Trust Co.?

Short Answer

The neighbors were allowed to sue because they benefitted from restrictive covenants in their subdivision's HOA.

In contrast, the deceased owner's heirs were not allowed to sue to prevent the house from being torn down, because the undisputedly valid will specifically directed the executor of the estate to tear the house down.

Long Answer

Today, this is a nice five bedroom, four bathroom house with a two car garage on half an acre, a picture of which appears below, that was built in 1920. As of January 2024, it is worth about $1,007,000. It was worth $40,000 in 1975, two years after this luxury, old money neighborhood was designated as a historic landmark.

This house is very expensive for Saint Louis, which isn't known for its high home prices. The median home price in Saint Louis, as of December 2023, is $214,074.

enter image description here

#4 Kingsbury Place, Saint Louis, Missouri 63112

This case involves a primitive home owner's association, with its own set of restrictive covenants, before there was general state legislation regulating HOAs in Missouri. It had to be designed, and litigated over, using common law property, trust, easement, and tort legal doctrines instead (which makes the case a great one to teach to first year law students who are just starting to learn these common law rules).

This case was one of the early cases in Missouri to kick the tires on how this form of property ownership would work out in practice.

Some more modern and familiar legal terminology may help.

The neighbors are part of the HOA. The trustees are the HOA board. Both seek to enforce the HOA's restrictive covenants. The beneficiaries are the heirs of their mother's probate estate. Their mother (a.k.a. the testatrix, which means a woman who wrote a will) is a deceased HOA member who owned one of the houses in the HOA during her life.

The heirs of the deceased HOA member, who don't live in the subdivision, just want their money so they can go on with their lives, and may place a premium on honoring their late mother's wishes (her "dead hand" so to speak).

They could believe, on the advice of their deceased matriarch in her will, that this old house, which was probably in poor repair at the time, was worth more as a scrape that a new house could be built upon its lot. The mother and her heirs probably saw this house as an "old fashioned" or "dated" house, in the future and modernism oriented mid-1970s when this wasn't considered cool, rather than as a classy and historic mini-mansion.

Or, maybe the house came with emotional baggage for them. Perhaps it reminded them of an unhappy family life growing up in it, or a traumatic crime or suicide that happened there. Perhaps tearing it down would provide all of them with spiritual exorcism from those memories.

Or maybe their mom just really hated her neighbors and wanted to get back at them as a final act of spite (behavior that isn't all that uncommon in an HOA setting). It could be that their late mother was on the losing side of an ugly historic landmark fight that prevented her from renovating the property in the manner that she desired.

After all, as the court notes, not many wills have terms that specifically provide for a house that is part of the estate to be torn down.

The facts of the case seem to suggest some variation of one of the the latter scenarios, involving emotional rather than economic motivations, is the best fit to the facts. But whatever their mom's reasons were, generally an executor has to carry out the directions of a valid will, whether the executor personally agrees with its directions or not. The key economic facts in this case were as follows:

Demolition of the dwelling will result in an unwarranted loss to this estate, the plaintiffs and the public. The uncontradicted testimony was that the current value of the house and land is $40,000.00; yet the estate could expect no more than $5,000.00 for the empty lot, less the cost of demolition at $4,350.00, making a grand loss of $39,350.00 if the unexplained and capricious direction to the executor is effected. Only $650.00 of the $40,000.00 asset would remain.

On the other hand, it could be that the judges and appraisers who testified in the case simply didn't really understand that development value in an exclusive and nice neighborhood with almost no unsold lots can make a vacant lot much more value than a vacant lot would be otherwise.

The evidence that the lots was worth just $5000 after the expensive demolition costs of $4,350, and that constructing a comparable replacement house would cost $200,000, yet the fair market value of the existing house and lot was just $40,000, doesn't add up.

One key fact, however, was not presented at trial or in the appellate court's opinion, which is what the property would have been worth if the old house was scraped and replaced with a new, more modern, house in prefect repair at a cost of $200,000 for construction and $5,000 for the lot. If the rebuilt house would have been worth $250,000 (which is quite a plausible margin between building it yourself and buying a finished spec house), then tearing it down and rebuilding might have actually been a smart economic move and their mother might have been "crazy like a fox" rather than merely emotionally driven. At a minimum, this house was almost surely in much worse condition in 1975 than it is today.

Naively, the numbers presented at trial suggest a land value of negative $165,000, which isn't consistent with such a nice neighborhood, unless the house as is was seriously undervalued due to some blight that isn't reflected in the quoted demolition costs, like mold or toxic waste or a perception that it was haunted.

In any case, the HOA and its members don't want the house to be torn down. Perhaps they felt it would disturb the architectural vision of their planned community that had just been designed as a historic landmark. Perhaps they thought that it would hurt their property values, either by making their homes look cheap by comparison to a new build, or because a new house on the lot would sticking out like a sore thumb from their neighboring houses, or by turning into a fallow, dangerous vacant lot with debris on it before a new house was built on the property.

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    My swag on the last paragraph is that all the houses in that neighborhood were likely built around the same time, and are similar sizes, and either the same style, or one of like 3 styles that were popular at the time. A new construction would almost certainly be different. In my experience, HOA's fear and hate change and difference above all else. Really, don't ever buy into a HOA neighborhood if you can at all help it.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 24 at 15:33
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    @T.E.D. "don't ever buy into a HOA neighborhood if you can at all help it." Very true! And, yet, when my clients do suburban duplex developments (sometimes with multiple duplexes on the same block) the local planning departments often insist on HOAs when a party wall agreement would get the job done better. Ticks me off. HOAs are sometimes necessary evils but are almost never good ideas.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 24 at 15:52
  • Having bought into a master-planned community for my first house, I'm pretty sure the developer required a strong HOA specifically because they had the bylaws written in such a way that they controlled the HOA until the development construction and sales were pretty much complete. So it was for them. After the developer didn't need it anymore, they didn't really care if it became destructive to the resident's QOL, well being, and/or property values.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 24 at 15:56
  • @T.E.D. Virtually every HOA starts with developer control. It's pretty much the only feasible way to do it. Don't read too much into that.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 24 at 17:17

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