The Raw Power of a Homeowner Association: What You Don’t Know Could Cost You Money

“Can they DO that?”

It’s a common question about homeowner associations and the usual answer is, YES!

For those of you unacquainted with HOAs, here’s a thumbnail history:

Once upon a time, when your neighbor painted his house orange and black (Go Beavs) or parked his broken-down pickup trucks on the front lawn permanently, we tolerated it. Didn’t like it, smoldered about it, but tolerated it.

But then came math. We noticed that people didn’t want to buy houses next to Permanent Halloween or next to Mr. Never Fix-It. We discovered that our property values could be affected if we attempted to sell while encumbered by neighboring eyesores.

So, rules were made (CCRs—Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) and HOAs created for the purpose of ensuring enforcement.

Over time, HOAs have proliferated. Most new neighborhoods come with HOAs attached. Which is great news if you live next door to Mr. Halloween.

However, the age of the HOA has come with a price, and not just in the form of monthly or yearly dues.

The HOA has, in legal parlance, police powers.

Powers previously vested only in government. The power to levy fines on your property in the form of liens, to encumber your ownership rights and, amazingly, to take your home from you.

Feel free to gasp.

Some HOAs have paid staff to serve the HOA board, including employees whose job it is to patrol the neighborhood for violations, and a number of board committees to scrutinize every aspect of your property.

The HOA can control not only fence height and paint colors (common HOA purview) but also the brand and exact model of replacement roof (50-year Presidential) whether the homeowner can afford it or not.

HOAs can fine a homeowner for every week a required repair or maintenance item is not done. In some neighborhoods, the issue is not so black-and-white as paint choice or a used car lot on someone’s front lawn, but cracks in the driveway, a lawn that isn’t watered regularly or runaway topiary.

While most homeowners in these neighborhoods can afford to do what is required, some – usually the elderly – are caught between a demanding HOA and a fixed income. Fines mount and soon, the HOA places a lien on the property.

In some HOAs, there is no mercy. Once an HOA has been granted police powers, it inevitably flexes them. Board members see it as “just doing our job.”

What’s the fix? If you are so unfortunate as to live next to Mr. Halloween, it is better (though more uncomfortable) to approach him personally than to report him to the HOA. Unless he’s armed. At least you can say you tried! You could also retaliate by painting your house green and yellow (Go Ducks!) and up the ante by erecting a life size Fighting Oregon Duck. Or Phil Knight, even.  Be creative! Seriously, consider the HOA a last resort.

If you have plans to paint, open a doggie daycare or start a garage band, your best defense is information and involvement. Read the CCRs, the bylaws of your HOA and the minutes of your HOA’s meetings. You should read them all before you buy into the neighborhood and make sure you can live with the rules. If you can’t, don’t assume the rules will bend for you!

When election of board members comes around, it pays to find out who the volunteers are and choose those who can balance compassion with property values concerns.

If you are faced with an HOA-run-amok, you can – with extensive help – dissolve it. This means neighborhood meetings (sorry) and the support of (most likely) a two-thirds majority of the voting households. Check the HOA bylaws for the particulars. Done right, you shouldn’t need pitchforks and torches. However, just because the HOA is dissolved does not mean the existing CCRs are gone – just that it will be harder for your neighbor to force your compliance. If you’re sufficiently obnoxious, an enterprising neighbor may call the city’s code enforcement officer to rid you of your used car lot.

In general, because most HOAs take action on a complaint basis rather than on a paid patrol basis, you’ll do well to be friends with your neighbors. The more exciting your exterior décor, the more Christmas cookies you’ll need to distribute this month!!

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