How to Handle an HOA Dispute
Your homeowner’s association (HOA) can do many things well - such as provide more amenities and services than you likely could afford on your own, from swimming pools to workout rooms, to walking/biking trails. Their job is to protect and enhance your property values by keeping your community clean, attractive, and well-maintained.
But there’s a price. Shared benefits mean giving up some individual freedom for the benefit of the community as a whole. You, along with other residents, elect members of the board and its officers to make and enforce rules and regulations concerning what you can and can’t do with your property, also known as the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs).
According to Nolo.com, CC&Rs can range widely, from how tall your fence can be, what size dog you can own, what color you paint your front door, and where you can park your car overnight. Instead of making all your own decisions, a committee of neighbors makes many of them for you. Sometimes, they make mistakes or decisions you don’t like, especially if power-happy board members decide to make too many rules.
All HOA-managed communities have governing documents, including the CC&Rs, that cover esthetics, personal conduct, property maintenance, and safety for the community. As a homebuyer, it’s incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about the community and its rules before you buy a home. You can then make the decision whether or not this particular community is right for you.
What if you like the community but not the rules? Most boards are keenly aware of their position both as elected volunteers and as neighbors. They don’t want to be tyrannical; they’ve simply put rules into effect that they’ve been advised by attorneys and/or property management companies to put in place for the benefit of the community. Rules simply make it easier to manage the property.
You do have some recourse, but it will take effort to overturn it. Sometimes a reasonable objection to a minor issue will do the trick. After all, the board is not comprised of professional property managers, but homeowners like you. They may not have thought through the consequences of a rule and may be willing to change it.
Let’s say all the front yards in your community have ground cover. Since the HOA manages the landscaping, it’s easier and less expensive if all the yards are alike. But what if you want grass instead of ground cover?
In other cases, you may have to submit your request for variance or complaint to the board. A variance simply means you want permission to do something different than the rules allow. Present your “request for variance” in writing, and go before the board where they will listen to your request. Be prepared to answer questions such as will the grass cost the association more money to water, mow and trim? Who’s liable if the grass dies? Do other homeowners prefer grass? Now, imagine the grass vs. ground cover issue multiplied across all the other households. That’s why you want to think through requests for variances carefully.
Occasionally HOA boards make mistakes. The board spends more than it needs to, doesn’t put aside enough for reserves, or ignores residents’ complaints about service providers. What can you do? Enter your complaint in writing. If you don’t get results, you can mount opposition by getting a petition signed by other homeowners. It takes a majority to get the board to overturn a rule. Last, you can become a board member yourself at the next election.
Keep in mind, that your community is comprised of neighbors whom you’ll encounter often. Most of them want the same things you do – a great lifestyle in pleasant surroundings.