Over 65 million Americans live in a community managed by a homeowners association, or HOA. They are nonprofit organizations, usually made up of volunteers from your neighborhood, who manage the development. They make sure residents pay their dues and abide by the standards of the community.
A quick Internet search will show you many complaints of aggressive, unresponsive HOAs that overstep their boundaries. Some of these cases are true, with residents ultimately taking their HOAs to court and winning the case.
Other homeowners may be surprised when they find themselves in violation of their HOA’s rules, when really, it was in the community regulations the entire time. This is why, before moving into a community, it’s crucial to figure out how things work within the neighborhood.
“If you're considering buying a home with an HOA, make sure that you read through the regulations. If you object to the existing regulations, or you feel like the regulations are a bit extreme for your style, then it may be a good idea to move on and look for another house,” says Shawn Breyer, owner of Breyer Home Buyers near Atlanta, Ga. “If there are clauses that rub you the wrong way, don't expect to be able to make any changes in the near future. Changes to your property that are regulated will have to be approved by the entire board.”
Prior to moving into a community, go to an HOA meeting so you can better understand the people within the association. Request a meeting with a member, or even the president of the HOA, to address any questions you have. This will establish an honest relationship with the association before you move in. Another smart suggestion: ask your potential neighbors what they like and dislike about their HOA.
Taking action in a disagreement
Having a disagreement with your homeowners association is more common than you think. A survey by the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in the Public Interest found that 72 percent of homeowners have been involved in a dispute with their homeowners association that was difficult to resolve. Some have even taken disputes with their HOA to civil court. Yet, not every dispute needs to lead to a battle in court.
If you receive a notice from your HOA that you violated a rule, and you want to discuss why, your first step should be to call a member and ask for a face-to-face meeting.
Kelly G. Richardson, managing partner of the Richardson Harman Ober law firm in Southern California, says an important thing to do is to be pleasant. The HOA board and committee members are your neighbors, and they are working as volunteers.
“A lot of people come into these hearings and say ‘How dare you,’" says Richardson. By doing this, you will start everything off on a hostile note. Whereas, treating everyone with kindness will get your position a more respectful hearing.
“They just want compliance. They don’t want to punish people,” Richardson says.
In the event that you do feel like you are being treated unfairly and have voiced your concerns with no resolution, there are a few options you have to take action.
“Make sure everything has been documented. Be current with your HOA payments,” says Michael Anthony, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Orlando, Fl., “have a copy of all the rules and be able to show you are still operating within the rules of your HOA.”
If the issue is community-wide, rally some neighbors to help your cause.
You can take the fight to small claims court, but it can be expensive. Even if you win, you may have to pay your own attorney fees. The association’s fees will be shared amongst you and your neighbors. Ideally, it’s best to avoid court, but a simple threat of court action can go a long way when you know the association is in the wrong.
“Sometimes a nice letter from a lawyer will make them back down,” says Sepehr Niakan, a broker for HB Roswell Realty in Miami, Fl.
Know the penalties and how far you can take a fight without incurring significant expenses. Keep these stakes in mind because some HOAs can levy fines that can become a lien on your house and lead to foreclosure.