The question you’ve asked touches on some very tricky theoretical issues in real estate law. The short answer is yes, you do own your own home.
The longer answer begins with the question of what it means to own real estate. Most concepts in U.S. real estate law (and that of most other English-speaking countries) are derived from English fuedal land law from centuries ago. Springing from this is the fairly modern concept that ownership of real estate is considered a bundle of rights, which may be divided among multiple individuals and entities.
The most complete form of real estate ownership is known as “fee simple absolute.” (The term is derived from Old English, or possibly Law French, and I’m not quite sure of its derivation.) Even if you own property in fee simple absolute, you do not have free right to do what you will with it, because you are subject to such things as zoning, environmental law, public nusance law, landmarks preservation law, and other laws impacting land use.
Most homeowners do not own their homes in fee simple absolute, but rather own them in fee simple subject to encumberances. There are a variety of types of encumbrances, including easements, leases, liens and restrictive covenants. Most encumberances are considered to “run with the land,” that is to say that even if a landowner sells the land, the land is still subject to the encumbrance.
There is a complex system in which most encumberances are publicly recorded in the county land records so that a potential purchaser of property will be able to know the encumberance that the property is subject to. When buying real estate, purchasers will often obtain a title report, which lists known encumbrances on a property, and title insurance, which insures that there are no encumberances on the property other than those discussed in the title report.
Easements are encumberances that allow another person to enter on your land for some purpose. Common types of easements in residential areas include utility easements, in which a utility company is given the right to run pipes or wires across your land; common driveway easements, in which adjacent homeowners have the right to use the edge of the other’s property for a common driveway; and access easements, in which a person has the right to cross your property to get from a nearby property to a public street or way. If you have an easement on your property, you are considered to own the property, subject to the rights of the holder of the easement.
Leases are encumberances that allow another person to use a specified portion of your land for a specific period of time. Although leases generally require the payment of periodic rent, and the landlord may oust the tenant if the tenant fails to pay rent, this need not be the case.
Liens are encumberances under which a person holds an interest in property as security for the performance of some obligation. The mortgage is probably the most common type of lien. In a mortgage, a bank or finance company will lend you money in exchange for your promise to repay and a mortgage on your real property. Another type of lien is a tax lien, which your property will be subject to if you don’t pay your required property tax. If there is a lien on your property, and you don’t perform on the obligation as required, the lienholder has the right to forclose on the propery, selling the property to satisfy the obligation.
Restrictive covenants are certain types agreements that restrict the use of property among groups of landowners. Typically, when a developer subdivides a development (i.e. divides a larger property into smaller building lots), the developer will make all of the building lots subject to certain restrictive covenants. The objective of these covenants is generally to increase the value of the subdivision. Some common restrictive covenants are those that limit property to residential use, or that require that homes built on the property are set back a certain distance from the street. (A formerly common restrictive covenant was one limiting the sale or occupancy of property by race, but this has been held to be unenforcable by the courts.)
A homeowners association is a special type of restrictive covenant. All property subject subject to a homeowners association documentation of that fact in the land records concerning that property, and therefore any person purchasing property subject to a homeowners association is on notice of the fact of the association and the general terms under which it will operate. (All of this should be disclosed in your title report.) By buying such property, you accept the control of the homeowners association and the fact that it has the right to issue fines (and have a lien on your property if you fail to pay such fines) if you violate its rules.
Buying property subject to a homeowners association (or other restrictive covenant) is a trade-off. You may have to cut your grass to a specified height, but you get the assurance that your neighbors will also have their grass trimmed, preventing people from having untrimmed grass and thereby detracting from the neat appearance of the neighborhood. Admittedly, there are opportunities for abuse, but homeowners associations have the obligation to be reasonable, and anyone who purchase property subject to such an association should do so with an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
Yes a homeowners association is one of many types of legal agreement that does somewhat reduce the control you may have over property you own, but by buying the propery, you have voluntarily subjected yourself to its control (and given yourself the opportunity, in conjunction with your neighbors, to impose standards on the association). Though you may have a smaller quantum of ownership than someone that is not subject to a homeowners association, you would still be considered to be the owner of your home.