The number of homes being built in communities operated by a homeowners’ association (HOA) is rising. But not all the folks who purchase those homes realize what they are getting themselves into.
Common-interest developments – in which HOAs run the properties after builders sell out all their lots, houses or apartments – are the country’s fastest-growing form of housing. And whether you like it or not, you must join your association upon purchasing such a home. You can’t opt out just because you don’t use the pool, tennis courts or other community amenities.
According to the Census Bureau, 61 percent of all new single-family houses completed last year were in HOA-run properties, up from 48 percent in 2010. The Community Associations Institute (CAI) says 69 million Americans now reside in such places.
These associations are created to sustain property values, maintain common areas and enforce the rules that govern their communities. Some associations ban owners from parking business vehicles on their driveways, for example. Some HOAs say you can’t park any kind of truck in their communities, even in your own garage.
Keep your garage doors closed, while you’re at it. 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. Good luck putting in a window air conditioning unit. Thinking about replacing your roof with a lighter shingle, or painting your front door red? Think again.
Those, of course, are some of the strictest rules an HOA might put into effect. Most rules are fairly benign. According to CAI, a national sampling of HOA residents rated their associations as either positive (64 percent) or neutral (26 percent). Only 1 in 10 had grievances, mostly involving how their particular complaint was handled.
Most HOA rules are in place for good reason. But once in a while, you run into an overzealous volunteer board or paid management company, and that’s when the gloves can come off.
Here, gathered from numerous sources, are some of the most egregious offenders:
- In Virginia, a 90-year-old Medal of Honor winner placed a flagpole in his front yard, only to be told that it wasn’t allowed. The HOA relented, but only after the issue went public and the veteran received support from members of Congress, the White House and the American Legion.
- A California man was flagged for having too many rosebushes on his 4.5-acre property. A judge ruled that he was in violation of the community’s architectural design rules. He offered to scale back his plantings, but was still forced to pay the HOA’s $70,000 legal bill, and eventually lost his home to the bank.
- “For Sale” signs are illegal in many communities. A Tennessee woman was forced to move her lawn sign to her window, even though the builder, still active in the neighborhood, had signs all over the place.
- When a Florida resident couldn’t afford to re-sod his lawn because the cost of his adjustable-rate mortgage had jumped markedly, his HOA sued him. He lost, and when he ignored the court’s order, he was put in jail.
- A wounded combat vet in Georgia was set to receive a newly built house, compliments of Homes for Our Troops, when his HOA balked because his slightly smaller house might have lowered property values for his neighbors.
- One California condo doesn’t allow pets’ feet to touch the floor in any common space, so a 61-year-old resident who walked with a cane was forced to carry her spaniel through the lobby every day. When she could no longer do so, she was fined $25 every time, and was eventually forced to move.
Rabid HOAs don’t always win, though. In Florida, a man whose commercial vehicle didn’t fit inside his garage was nabbed for parking the truck on his driveway. The HOA took him to court, even though he had been parking in the driveway for years. He won, the HOA appealed and he won again. This fracas cost the HOA about $300,000.
A Virginia HOA bankrupted itself in a battle over political yard signs. During the four years the case dragged through the courts, the association boosted the HOA fee from $650 annually to $3,500 – meaning everyone had to pay for their board being on the wrong side of an argument.
And in another case, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has charged a New Jersey condo association with discrimination after barring an elderly resident from using the front door with her service pet. The woman, who has severely limited hearing and sight, was required to use the service entry – a violation of the Fair Housing Act, according to HUD.
The takeaway: Living in an HOA-led community is fine for some people, but it’s not for everyone. Before you buy, ask for a sit-down with a member of the association board to discuss how things are run. And look over the rules carefully to make sure you can live with them.
Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.