How to Live Successfully Under a Homeowners Association
If you are buying a condominium, townhouse or single family home in a new development, you will likely become a member of a community association.
About 20% of Americans live in a community governed by a condominium association, homeowners association or co-op board, according to the Community Associations Institute, which trains volunteer board members and health care professionals. association management. The number of local authorities covered by the associations has increased from around 10,000 in 1970 to more than 333,000 today.
Community associations have rules that determine everything from how many pets you can own to what color you can paint your front door. Some include amenities such as swimming pools, clubhouses and golf courses, while others offer services such as road maintenance and street lighting.
Associations are created by developers, then handed over to a council of volunteer owners once all the units in the development are sold. These volunteers are responsible for ensuring the facilities are maintained, collecting maintenance fees and enforcing the rules.
“It’s the ultimate form of democracy,” says Frank Rathbun, CAI’s vice president of communications.
While stories of homeowners associations denying children with cancer permission to build a playhouse or veterans flying a flag on the wrong type of mast may make headlines, CAI statistics show that 64% of residents are satisfied with their community association experience and 26% are neutral, with only 10% dissatisfied, according to a 2014 survey.
But the same survey shows nearly a quarter of residents have experienced a significant disagreement with their association, with landscaping and parking being the two most common causes, followed by financial and architectural issues.
Whether you love or hate the rules that come with associational community life, once you’ve bought or rented from an association, you’ve signed up. Being a member of an association ties your destiny to that of your neighbors in a way that living in a traditional housing estate does not.
“You have to overcome this ‘my home is my castle’ problem,” Rathbun says.
The rules are designed to protect property values, and 70% of respondents to the CAI survey believe they do, while 26% believe they make no difference. Disagreements over the rules needed to protect property values often lead to disputes that can cost residents time and money if mismanaged.
“People should know that being in a condo is a give and take thing,” says Patrick Hohman, author of “Condos Townhomes and Home Owner Associations: How to Make Your Investment Safer” and longtime volunteer board member of administration who is now a part-time on-site manager at a condominium near Louisville, Kentucky. He also runs an educational website called www.CondoHOAinfo.com.
“It’s an ongoing process of building and maintaining trust,” says Hohman. “You learn to forgive others and yourself. You treat people where they are and as they are. It’s a bit like dealing with your extended family at Thanksgiving.
A challenge for associations is that volunteer board members with no experience in property management are tasked with maintaining properties worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. About two-thirds of the associations hire professional managers, but the rest are managed by the residents themselves.
“Board members are almost never trained in property management,” says Richard Thompson, who publishes The Regenesis Report, a weekly newsletter for board members and developers. He also writes a syndicated column for Realty Times and has just published the book “Trade HOA Stress for Success”. He recommends professional management – hiring trained and experienced property managers to oversee operations – for most associations. “If the council hires good people, they’ll stay ahead of the game and not put out the fires,” he says.
Communities depend on the skills and personalities that residents and council members bring to the table. Some people are better than others at working with their neighbors, and low-skilled residents can create problems for everyone, especially if they sit on the board.
Experts say communications and transparency — being very clear about where money is going, welcoming residents and board meetings, and sharing information about how decisions are made — go a long way to community harmony.
“There is no substitute for communication between the association and the residents,” says Rathbun.
Here are seven tips for getting along well in a homeowners association.
Know the rules before moving in. Too few potential residents understand the rules before buying or renting. Being able to live with policies on pets, parking, collection, rentals, noise, and architectural guidelines is especially important. “People join a homeowner’s association with no idea what they’re obligated to do,” says Thompson. “Not many potential buyers research these things before closing the deal.”
Follow proper procedures. Councils should have clear procedures in place for everything from getting permission to paint your front door to rental applications to installing a satellite dish, and landlords should expect to follow these procedures.
Go to your neighbor before going to the council. The council is there to make sure the rules and regulations of the development are followed, but if your neighbor’s loud music bothers you, talk to your neighbor first before complaining to the HOA council.
If you don’t like a rule, get your neighbors together to change it. Changing circumstances may make some rules obsolete, and boards should review the rules every few years to ensure they all serve the community. If you don’t like a rule, tell your neighbors and petition the board collectively for a change.
Volunteer to help your community. It is not always obvious from the outside as to exactly what work the board is doing and what issues the community is facing. Once you move in, volunteer to help with a project or serve on a committee, and expect to serve on the board of directors at some point. “Be involved. Don’t wait until you’re unhappy with something,” Rathbun says.
Try to stay out of court. Every community has a few people who think the rules don’t apply to them, and some would rather fight than comply. A legal battle can be costly, both in money and in emotional turmoil within the community. “Win, lose or draw, we’re always talking about neighbors who have that bigger wall between them,” Thompson said. Rathbun adds: “Be reasonable: this applies to both owners and volunteer owners who sit on the board.”
Have a long term plan. State laws regarding reservations and planning vary, but it always makes sense to plan for items that you know will need to be replaced or repaired, such as roads, roofs and swimming pools. If the community doesn’t have the reserves or a plan, a condo roof leak could mean a surprise valuation of thousands of dollars for each owner. “If the council had raised money and planned this…every member along the timeline would have paid a portion,” Thompson says.