What to Know About Cluster Mailboxes

Several mail posts observed from very close. Into the background a pixelated “Stop” street sign.

Cluster mailboxes are an alternative to individual home mail deliveries. Photo Credit: Aaheath; Dreamstime.com

How you receive your mail may not be at the top of your list of things to think about when you are considering when buying a new home.

If you are a senior citizen, handicapped or simply don’t feel like walking (or driving) up to a block away every day to fetch your mail, however, it is something that you might want to move up the list.

Under pressure to cut costs wherever possible, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is now requiring builders and developers to purchase and install kiosks holding a cluster of individual mail boxes.

By delivering mail to kiosks, instead of door-to-door or even individual street-side mailboxes, the postal service is saving money on gasoline and wear-and-tear on USPS vehicles. And because letter carriers can deliver to more mailboxes when they are clustered – or fewer carriers are needed to deliver the same amount of mail – it’s saving money on salaries, too.

According to the USPS, at roughly $30 billion annually, delivering mail is the largest single fixed-cost the service incurs. Put another way, door-to-door delivery costs about $353 a year per address, while curbside delivery runs $224. Cluster boxes cut the cost to $160 per address annually.

There are other good reasons to deliver to cluster boxes. One is security. With mail safely tucked away in locked boxes, there is far less chance that identity thieves will be able to snatch your letters, bills and checks.

At the same time, though, requiring builders to supply the cluster boxes adds another layer of cost to their homes, not to mention the inconvenience it can place on homebuyers.

The Post Office defines 
cluster units as free-standing, pedestal mounted metal mailboxes containing eight, 12, 13 or 16 individually locked mailboxes and parcel compartments. Each box can cost $1,000 or more, depending on the style and size.

Beyond that, developers are free to individualize the installations. In climates where intemperate weather is a factor, builders sometimes decide to spiff up their kiosks with overhead roofs and lighting, making them resemble covered bus stops, but that adds an even greater cost factor. In some instances, they put the centralized units in customized buildings that blend in with the community decor.

Cluster boxes have been the norm in most attached townhouse communities for years. But builders usually have been able to stop local postal officials from switching to them in communities where the single-family homes are detached, according to Claire Worshtil, senior program manager for land use at the National Association of Home Builders.

The momentum, though, changed in 2012, says Worshtil. Under siege from the Internet and other, less expensive competitors, the Postal Service revised its operations manual to make cluster boxes the default for new residential development, even in those large lot subdivisions were houses can be acres apart.

Builders in some places around the country – Oregon is one that comes to mind – have been dealing with cluster boxes for years and have come to accept them. But in other places such as North Carolina and Florida, builders are finding them a tough requirement to swallow. Ditto for those in infill sites, where the neighboring older homes still have their mail delivered to their doors.

Under pressure to cut costs wherever possible, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is now requiring builders and developers to purchase and install kiosks holding a cluster of individual mail boxes.In North Carolina, according to Tim Minton, director of government affairs for the North Carolina Home Builders Association, the USPS failed to notify both builders and the local building authorities that it was no longer going to deliver to individual houses. Moreover, it wouldn’t grant a waiver to subdivisions that were already approved but weren’t started until the housing downturn had turned upward.

Consequently, some projects that were cleared three or four years ago found out mid-stream that cluster boxes were required. In many cases, says Minton, there wasn’t any place to put them. And in other instances, mail is delivered in half of the subdivision and developers have to put in cluster boxes for the homes in the other half.

Some builders spent $60,000 to $70,000 to put in boxes they were not counting on when they started, Minton says. But the postal service held firm. “I feel worse for our home buyers. They expected their mail to be delivered to their homes, but that’s not going to be the case.”

A recent 
study by Gallup on behalf the USPS Inspector General’s office found door-to-door or curb delivery is not going to die hard among homeowners, who place a high value on maintaining the status quo. The situation even prompted Syndicated Columnist Bob Greene to wax poetic on the topic recently on CNN:

It’s hardly wild speculation to predict that people will not relish having to go out into the weather every time they want to retrieve their mail. Some won’t trust the security of the group mailboxes, no matter how many assurances they receive. They’ll be especially vexed on rainy or snowy days when they make the trip to the cluster boxes, only to find that the carrier hasn’t arrived yet. For those accustomed to door-to-door mail service, the act of picking up and sorting through the mail in front of other people may feel less private.

Individual owners can’t fight city hall on this one and neither can home owner associations. Only builders can take up the fight and only with local postmasters, who have been given the authority to veer from the dictum from headquarters in Washington. But that’s proven to be difficult, as builders in the Tar Heel State found out.

Even the North Carolina League of Municipalities has failed to sway the local postmasters that the “requirement has caused significant difficulties for developers, future buyers and local governments alike.”

Still, the NAHB recently offered its members a few guidelines to use to persuade their postmasters to back off. “Local Postal Service officials may conclude that cluster boxes aren’t worth the savings,” says Worshtil. “Pointing out these issues may help them along”:

Postal rules require that cluster boxes must not require residents to walk more than one block to get their mail. But even that can be a hardship on folks in seniors-only communities or people with disabilities. Regular delivery is much less of a problem for this population.

Just because a development sets aside a common area for kiosks does not mean the boxes are secure or safe. Thieves can break into them almost as easily as they can flip open a curbside mailbox. Recently, bandits broke into boxes in dozens of California cities to snatch tax documents so they can file fake tax returns.

Foul weather such as snow or ice can make retrieving mail difficult, if not impossible, for anyone.

Some planned communities leave it up to their homeowners’ associations (HOAs) to maintain the cluster box areas, which mean annual assessments will be that much higher. But not all properties these days have HOAs, which begs the question, “Who’s responsible?”

If homeowners should lose their mail box key, they, not the Post Office, are responsible for replacing it. And if they can’t find their one and only duplicate with which to make a copy, they will have to replace the entire lock, a tricky job at best, especially for those without the proper tools.

Lew Sichelman is a nationally syndicated housing and real estate columnist. He has covered the real estate beat for more than 40 years.

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