• Will Downs

The 5 things you MUST know before joining an HOA.


As a law firm, we’ve helped many clients with HOA issues. Some big surprises could have been avoided if our clients had known these 5 things. Take a moment to read through them and contact Downs Law if you have any questions regarding your HOA.


NO.1 Know Exactly What a Homeowner’s Association is…And What it is Not


HOA’s are private organizations tasked with maintaining and enforcing the “common interest” of residents within a certain community. They have their own series of rules and regulations (called By-Laws or CCRs) and will likely collect membership fees and dues for the purpose of funding the association and its projects. When functioning properly (which, unfortunately, they don’t always do) HOAs can be an effective system for ensuring that your neighborhood or condo building remains an appealing and comfortable place to live.


Unfortunately, HOAs don’t always function as intended. HOA oversteps occur when one or more board members use their position for personal benefit or fail to enforce their rules and regulations in a reasonable fashion. Falling victim to HOA misuses (or abuses) of power can not only cause massive headaches but also lead to massive expenses when allowed to progress too far. If you suspect that your HOA has been acting in erratic or unreasonable ways, make sure to contact a capable attorney who is able to evaluate the situation and offer guidance. Often, the right attorney can save you from unwarranted fines, or prevent you from having to follow expensive, overly restrictive building and design codes.


NO.2 Know the Rules, Requirements, and Regulations


Your HOA will undoubtedly come with a series of mandatory rules for members of the community. These rules are sometimes referred to as the Covenants, Codes, and Restrictions (CCRs) or By-Laws, and they can be surprisingly broad in scope. They can range from physical regulations, such as what color you can paint your house, to behavioral regulations, such as whether you’re allowed to smoke on community property or host loud parties after hours. Regulations can be quite particular as well. Take, for example, environmental regulations, which can dictate the kinds of fertilizer you use in your home garden, or animal regulations, which can prohibit ownership of certain dogs with perceived aggressive tendencies.


Adherence to these rules is mandatory, so make sure that you are appropriately familiar with and can agree to a community’s regulations before you join. Openly disregarding these rules can land you harsh penalties, and HOA boards are frequently well-equipped to enforce their provisions even if you disagree with them. Small violations might just land you a fine, but more egregious errors could spur the HOA into placing a lien on your property or garnishing your wages in order to receive payment.


Understanding HOA bylaws and CCRs is rarely easy. If you find it difficult to understand your HOA’s rules and regulations, the right attorney can help. They can break down perplexing bylaws into layman’s terms, and explain the can and can't do’s of HOA membership in a clear, easy-to-follow, and easy-to-remember fashion.


NO. 3 Know What Fees You Are Expected to Pay - and Know When to Pay Them


As a pseudo form of government, HOAs are entitled to collect membership fees for the purpose of funding the association and its interests. These funds may be directed in many ways - towards the construction of a new pool, the hiring of security personnel to patrol your neighborhood, general maintenance and cleaning services, or other communal goods. Before joining an HOA, make sure you are aware of how much and when you will be expected to contribute. These are regular dues that may—and likely will—compound with late fees should you fail to pay on time.


At a minimum, you can expect to pay a monthly membership rate. You can also expect this rate to change based on what type of property you are buying. For example, when moving into a condominium-based association, your rates might be a bit higher to adequately fund the HOA’s emergency reserve funds, which will be tapped into for items such as emergency roof replacements. Similarly, when moving into a neighborhood of single-family homes, your rate can depend on the size of your home or plot of land. Smaller homes that impose a “smaller community burden” may pay less compared to houses that have more square footage. Finally, do not be surprised if your fees increase year to year. They are subject to inflation, so make sure to talk with your HOA board about current expectations for impending (even if distant) rate changes.


Also, be warned: There might be some “unusual” fees that pop up from time to time, seemingly at random. These fees are referred to as “special assessments” and are an HOAs way of collecting emergency funds in response to unexpected or dire situations, such as extensive property damage. Note, however, that HOAs are not always entitled to collect these extra charges. Special assessments sometimes require approval through a community memorandum, and, in circumstances where a memorandum is not required, it's likely that the board must host a special meeting to discuss the implementation of the assessment. Members are frequently entitled to attend these so that they may voice any concerns.


NO. 4 Understand How Your Board Works and Who’s On it!


The HOA board is the group of individuals who manage the association. Many of their responsibilities include collecting the monthly membership dues or fees, writing the bylaws that regulate the community, and enforcing these rules should they be broken. Often, the board is composed of resident members themselves, who take time out of their personal or professional lives to volunteer as a board member for the sake of their community. However, should an insufficient number of residents be available to take a board position, the association may instead be run by professionals from a third-party community management company.


If you’re curious about your board’s meetings and would like to take a glimpse at the items discussed, you can request a copy of your board’s Meeting Minutes. These are comprehensive breakdowns of the board’s meeting objectives and can serve as a useful tool for gauging where the board’s (and in theory, the community’s) interest is being directed. If you want to take a more direct approach to enforce the community’s interests, you might consider joining your HOA’s board. To start this process, it would be wise to regularly attend board meetings, familiarize yourself with the current members, and ask about available positions. If there is an open position that you are interested in, get up to speed on the local election policies. That’s right! While board memberships are usually volunteer positions, it is typically required that these volunteers are voted into office. This is why becoming friendly with your neighbors is just as important as becoming friendly with your board. Having close connections with both parties will allow you to effectively gauge the communities desires and compose compelling reasons for why you would make an effective board member.


NO. 5 The Purpose of an HOA is to benefit the community. Don’t let them bully you.


HOA’s are not infallible organizations that rule over your home with an iron fist. Their primary purpose is to benefit the community, and they can be held accountable when their actions or regulations become unreasonable. For example, if a new design policy is created that requires you to repaint your house or update the design of its surrounding fencing, the association must give you an appropriate amount of time to make said changes. Likewise, changing HOA administrators or board members cannot unilaterally redact the previous administration’s policies without sufficient cause.


For example, suppose that your current HOA administration approves of a new design for the fence surrounding your property, but gets replaced by a third-party management administration one month after you received initial approval. If you have already spent time and money sourcing materials and hiring contractors, the new administration cannot simply “undo” the previous administration’s approval.


Likewise, HOAs are not authorized to haunt you forever. Once you are no longer the principal owner or payer of property within their jurisdiction, they cannot venture across an unlimited distance to seek funding. Suppose a resident decides to move out of the state, leaving the property to be owned and membership dues to be paid by their now former roommate. Should the remaining roommate later default on their payments, the HOA cannot seek out payments from individuals who left simply on the grounds that “they once lived there.”


Of course, every situation is different, and there are rules for exiting. This is why talking to an HOA attorney is important for guaranteeing a successful HOA departure, should you be inclined to do so down the road.


We know this is A LOT to take into consideration. That’s why we’re here for you at Downs Law. We have lots of experience navigating HOA issues for our clients, so please reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns - we’re happy to help!


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