An HOA, or a homeowners’ association, is a private association that exists mainly to protect the property values of a particular subdivision or development. An HOA is typically set up by the developer when the homes are built. After a predetermined number of lots have been sold, the developer will turn over ownership of the HOA to the homeowners. Often, HOAs get a bad name for the strict and even arbitrary rules they enforce. But they also provide a lot of benefits to homeowners. Knowing how to deal with an HOA can make the difference between a smooth interaction and a complete nightmare.
What Does an HOA Do?
To begin to understand how to deal with an HOA, you need to know what exactly what they do. One important thing to keep in mind is that an HOA is a private organization. Although many HOAs perform duties we often associate with municipal governments—some experts have called them de facto governments—they are not subject to any of the constitutional limitations of an actual government. That gives them a lot of room to make rules, and it means that constitutional guarantees like the right to free speech or political expression don’t extend to HOAs.
One test case was an HOA in New Jersey that prohibited the display of political signs on private property. Homeowners sued and claimed the rule restricted political expression. But the ban was upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Although HOAs create rules that may not appeal to all homeowners, the overall goal is always to preserve and increase property values. To that end, HOAs may also provide many services. They often maintain common areas, such as small parks, tennis courts, and swimming pools. Some HOAs even maintain infrastructure like roads and street lights. Others may provide added security.
In addition to services, the HOA puts limits on how homeowners can use their property. They may limit the size and type of additions you can make to your home or the colors you can paint your home. The intention is to prevent your neighbor from building an unsightly mega-house in garish colors right next door to yours. That would certainly lower your property values. However, some rules may go a bit too far. For instance, some HOAs prohibit parking a pickup truck in your driveway or putting a for sale sign on your lawn. While well-intentioned, these rules may become onerous for some homeowners.
What to Do If You Have a Dispute with the HOA
The best way to resolve a dispute is to avoid it before it happens. Here are some tips to avoid conflict:
- Read and know your HOA bylaws and covenants. Knowing the rules can help you avoid breaking them.
- Get to know your neighbors. Most HOA violations are reported by neighbors, not board members. Having good relations with your neighbors will make them more likely to come to you with a problem before going to the HOA.
- Alert neighbors to planned changes to your property. Many renovations, from additions to fences to house painting, have to follow strict HOA rules. Alerting your neighbors and getting their buy-in makes it less likely they will report you to the HOA.
- Get approval before you make changes. Many renovations require HOA approval. Get it before you start.
In case you do run into a conflict, the HOA may levy fines. If that happens, you have four options: pay the fine, ignore the fine, ask for a variance, or challenge it in court. Paying the fine and making the changes the HOA requests is the easiest way out. However, it is also a tacit admission of guilt and will make it harder to challenge a similar violation in the future. Ignoring the fine is the worst thing you can do, as we will discuss. A more diplomatic way to avoid the fine is to ask for a variance. A variance is basically an exception to the rules of the HOA. If you are polite and work with the HOA, they may grant you a variance. If all else fails, you may be forced to go to court. But don’t be too hasty. Going to court over a few hundred dollars could cost you thousands in legal fees if you lose.
Never Ignore Money You Owe the HOA
Always pay your dues and never ignore a fine. That’s because an HOA has a real ae up their sleeve. If you owe them money and don’t pay up, they can put a lien on your house. If you continue to withhold payment, they could even foreclose on your house. There are stories of homeowners who lost homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because they owed their HOA just a few hundred dollars. The moral is, never ignore money you owe to the HOA. If all else fails, you can appeal to the humanity of the board and hope for mercy, but you have no real legal recourse.
What to Do When an HOA Isn’t Doing Its Job
HOAs provide certain benefits. In the case of Mary Lawson, a Georgia homeowner, her HOA provided landscape maintenance services for its residents. She paid for it every month. But one day the landscapers stopped coming, and for three months her property just became overgrown. She tried contacting her HOA, but they claimed that service was not in their bylaws, even though it was there in black and white.
When Mary called TrustDALE to help her out, we confirmed that the bylaws clearly stated that “the association shall be responsible for maintaining the grass and the grounds of the portion of each LOT which is not located inside a fence.” When we asked the management company about it, they changed their story. They claimed that because Mary had planted bushes, they were no longer obligated to maintain the property. Apparently, because the bushes were hers and not the association’s, they didn’t want to trim them. They claimed that any modification of the property voided their obligation.
The problem with that claim is that it isn’t supported by the bylaws.
Nowhere was there anything about modifications to the property or actions that would void her right to garden maintenance. In the end, the management company agreed to put her yard back on their maintenance schedule. In the meantime, the TrustDALE team got to work doing a little gardening and made Mary’s yard look presentable again.
Often, a management company may manage multiple HOAs. If at first you don’t get the response you are looking for, just be persistent. It may take multiple polite communications before the company attends to your request.