Group Making Notes Whilst Attending Neighborhood Meeting In Community Center
Buying, Out of the House

Before You Move: What to Know About Homeowner Associations

If you’re looking to move sometime in the near future, it’s important to consider if a neighborhood managed by a Homeowners Association is something you’re interested in. While different HOAs have different restrictions, here’s what you need to know if it’s something you are, or aren’t, considering.

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Two-thirds of all housing units built in 2018 were in communities governed by their owners, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics, making common-interest developments the nation’s fastest form of home ownership. That means home and condominium owners, about 25% of the U.S. population decide not only what services to provide that their local municipalities don’t, but also under what rules their fellow residents must live by.

In most cases, the monthly or quarterly dues that condo and homeowner associations collect go toward maintaining their streets, operating their clubhouses and other amenities, keeping their public spaces clean, and perhaps even paying for some utilities. In some cases, they may even clean your roof every so often and paint the outside of your house. But your association also dictates how you live. For example, it might not allow for window air conditioning units. You may not be permitted to keep your garage door open, or perhaps receive a letter highlighting the need for better yard maintenance.

Group Making Notes Whilst Attending Neighborhood Meeting In Community Center

It’s all in the name of maintaining property values, and many association boards (owners elected to do the dirty work) work zealously in that regard. Indeed, the 2.35 million board members nationwide volunteer a collective 80 million hours annually, CAI calculates. If they were paid $22.50 an hour, the value of their time would be a whopping $1.76 billion.

But sometimes, board members, who are owners, just like you, are a tad overzealous. Make sure your draperies are all the same color and material as your neighbors’, plant flowers here, but not there, and only this kind of plant. No clothes lines and no hanging towels over your balcony or deck railing to dry. And those are the least objectionable rules you might have to live by. The downfall? If you can’t afford to do what the association demands, you can be sued.

Most rules are pretty tame, though. So much so that most people who reside in common-interest developments are overwhelmingly satisfied with the experience, according to CAI’s latest poll.

So, if you are a lone wolf who doesn’t like be told how to live, you might not want to consider a house or apartment in a community governed by one of the 47,000 or so owners’ associations nationwide. There are still lots of choices out there, for as widespread as association living is, most houses that are for sale are in places where people are free to paint the front doors yellow if they so desire.

Look elsewhere, too, if you don’t like the idea of paying for trash removal, snow removal and other things you can do yourself. If you don’t like being told exactly how to maintain your lawn, get out before you get in. And if you don’t intend to play golf or use the pool or clubhouse, this definitely isn’t the place for you. You’re still going to have to pay your dues, whether you use the facilities or not.

To decide whether you can live under what some say feels like house arrest, take the time to read the covenants, conditions, and restrictions that are set up to regulate the community’s use, appearance and maintenance. Known largely as the CC&Rs, they are the rules of your neighborhood, so study them carefully.

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The penalties for violating any of these and other dictums– or for not paying your dues– can be severe. Your association’s board will flag your first violation and give you ample time to get back in line. But if you continue to balk, you can be fined and if you still fail to comply, you could find yourself in court.

Your board can also bar you from using the commonly owned facilities such as the pool or clubhouse and it can place a lien against your property for unpaid dues and fines, making it far more difficult to sell.

Besides the CC&Rs, you’ll want to take a hard look at the association’s budget, past and current, to try to determine whether the community’s finances are in order. Here, it might be worth your while to hire an accountant who is familiar with homeowner associations to go over the books on your behalf. Specifically, you’ll want to make sure the board stays within its allotted budget or often spends more than what was called for. If they are over budget, then a dues increase is probably in order.

In brand new communities, builders sometimes lowball dues in the project’s early stages to make it more attractive. Later, when they turn over the association to the owners, your board has no choice but to raise the dues, which means you’ll pay more than what you were told originally.

In existing communities, try to determine whether the board is considering a special assessment– an amount over and above your monthly or quarterly dues– to cover some unforeseen and major expense, say street repairs or replacing the clubhouse roof. If so, you could be hit with an appreciable levy soon after you move in.

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Lew Sichelman
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Syndicated newspaper columnist, Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing market and all it entails for more than 50 years. He is an award-winning journalist who worked at two major Washington, D.C. newspapers and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.