In the United States, there are more than 347,000 communities with a homeowner association (HOA). Some of these HOAs are managed by large management companies, but the vast majority (70%) are handled by community volunteers. In 2018, more than 73 million Americans called these communities home and collectively paid HOAs more than $95.6 billion in association fees — also referred to as assessments.
Pretty crazy, right?
Whether or not you’ve lived in one of these communities, you probably already know that homeowners have responsibilities when they live in an HOA. However, what about the HOA’s responsibilities to homeowners? Let’s dig into the purpose of an HOA, the duties of the board members, and where all that money goes.
What is the purpose of a homeowner’s association?
An HOA is a group of community residents (or a management company) that enforces the rules and regulations that fellow residents must follow. You’ll usually find HOAs in planned developments like a condo complex, townhome communities, and in both many newly developed and established neighborhoods with single-family homes.
Mary Stewart, a seasoned real estate agent in Texas who’s been in the business for more than 40 years, elaborates: “They make sure that a lot of the rules aren’t being broken. They patrol the neighborhood to see if the yard is mowed, Christmas lights have been taken down, and if things need to be repaired.
“Once, I had a listing that had a loose gutter. An HOA board member called me and requested I have the seller repair the gutter,” she adds.
What kind of rules and regulations can a HOA make?
Each community has its own set of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), and it is in your best interest to request a current copy of the governing documents for your specific HOA. The documents will give you detailed information and guidelines regarding what you can and cannot do in the community.
Most HOA communities have regulations and guidelines regarding the following:
- Any changes made to the architecture of your home
- Restrictions regarding lawn ornaments and holiday decorations
- Requirements for home maintenance
- Policies regarding noise complaints
- How many people can reside in the home
- Parking rules
- How many pets and what kind of pets are allowed
- Rules and schedules for trash and recycling
- Whether or not you can rent out your home for a short time (such as on Airbnb)
What happens if rules have been broken?
HOAs have a lot of rules and regulations, that is to be sure! What happens if you break one of those rules? What kind authority do board members (who may happen to be your neighbors) have?
Well, you’d be surprised by what kind of recourse you could face. Depending on the development, as well as state and federal laws, an HOA could slap you with warnings, fines, and potentially even put a lien on your home — providing they are within their legal rights to do so and they follow the correct procedures.
However, if the HOA has not followed the appropriate procedures, or if they’re singling you out for breaking a rule that others have broken but they were not penalized, then you may have grounds to fight back. If this is the case, you can air your grievances with the HOA board members. If you’ve tried that already or if you don’t know your rights under state law, you should reach out to a lawyer who is familiar with HOA matters.
What are the HOA responsibilities to homeowners?
As a homeowner in a community with an HOA, you have a lot of responsibilities. But what are the responsibilities of the HOA? After all, they don’t just collect money from you without promising some things in return!
Let’s take a look at what your HOA is supposed to do for you.
Maintain common areas
The HOA is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of common areas (amenities that are accessible to all residents in the community). They can repair damages and upgrade systems for safety reasons and aesthetics.
For example, homeowners are not required to fix a broken window in the fitness room or repair the HVAC system in the community’s clubhouse.
One of the HOA board members will have to shop around and get estimates from contractors to make the necessary repairs. This duty usually falls to the board treasurer, as they are responsible for maintaining the community’s financial records.
The HOA is also responsible for keeping walkways, sidewalks, and entrances clear of debris, and they generally keep up with the landscaping around communal areas (most HOAs will do the landscaping for homeowners if the HOA oversees a condo or townhouse complex).
Investigate complaints and act as a mediator
No matter how large the community is, there will always be a conflict of some kind. It is up to the HOA members to investigate the cause of the conflict and figure out who is in the wrong.
Suppose someone complains their neighbors are making too much noise late at night. Maybe they’ve asked the neighbors repeatedly to lower the volume, but to no avail.
That’s when the HOA could be involved. They’ll sit down and talk to each person and determine whether the complaint is valid or not. If it is, they’ll issue the offending party a warning or a fine for violating one of the community rules.
Managing finances for the community
We mentioned that the treasurer is responsible for managing financial records and paying the contractors or repairmen, but their role goes beyond that. They are also responsible for collecting dues from community members and following up with members if they forget to pay.
The HOA treasurer is also responsible for creating a budget to pay bills, insurance, and taxes for community areas. They’ll also set money aside in a reserve fund for emergencies around the complex — replacing the roof on a community center, for example.
Approving or changing CC&Rs
The CC&Rs are created by the HOA to ensure the community maintains property value, safety, and curb appeal. The regulations vary from community to community, but all community members are expected to follow the rules.
If you feel the rules are unfair or you’d like to see a new rule implemented, you can petition the HOA board and state your case — just make you read the rules, so you know the correct procedure to do so.
Hold meetings, record communications, and organize other documentation
We’ve talked a lot about what the treasurer does, but there are other board members with significant roles, too.
The board president is the person who leads meetings, announces agendas, and maintains order and decorum. They need to be well-versed in the CC&Rs and understand the ins and outs of the governing documents.
They also call for votes, announce the results, and call on people to have their time to speak on the floor.
The board vice president shares many responsibilities that the president does. They ensure order is maintained during meetings and make sure business flows smoothly. The VP can also take a leadership role should the president be unavailable.
The board secretary is responsible for maintaining the meeting’s minutes and organizing official HOA records. They review and update documents as needed and make sure the documents are available to community members. The secretary is also responsible for staying up-to-date with deadlines for filing legal documents, as well as organizing contracts and leases.
Depending on the state, HOAs will have an election every few years. Any member of the community can run for a spot on the committee, providing they meet eligibility requirements. Members of the community can vote anonymously one of three ways: in person at a meeting, mailing in their vote, or voting by proxy.
What can I do if my HOA isn’t upholding its responsibilities?
If the HOA isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities, you can do something about it.
First of all, you’ll want to refer to the governing documents to see what the board’s responsibilities are. Then, if you’re certain they’re shirking their responsibilities, document it! Keep a detailed record of their transgressions (for example, the clubhouse is filthy or the grass is overgrown). It’s a good idea to take photographs and date your documents, too.
When you have ample documentation, you can approach the board with your concerns. Show them the evidence and even refer to the governing documents to further prove your case. If you’ve talked to fellow community members, you can ask them to back you up during the meeting.
If the HOA board ignores your complaints or downplays the seriousness of the situation, “homeowners can vote out the board members. But if they just want to change the bylaws, the majority of community members must agree on the change,” Stewart explains.
Keep in mind that this is no easy feat and it will require the community to come together for change to happen — and even then, this change is not guaranteed.
If all else fails, contact a lawyer who is well versed in HOA laws and you (and your neighbors, if they’re involved, too) can sue the HOA. In some instances, the threat of a lawsuit could be the thing that finally causes the HOA to fulfill its responsibilities.
Don’t be afraid to hold the HOA accountable
As a homeowner in a community with a homeowner’s association, you can’t be afraid to hold board members accountable if they aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities. You are expected to pay your dues and follow the bylaws as outlined in the CC&Rs and governing documents, and the HOA is also expected to complete its side of the bargain.
Although you may not be able to slap HOA members with fines like they can to you, you can follow the proper procedures as laid out in the HOA documents to spark change.
You and your neighbors can band together and discuss your grievances at one of the meetings. You can petition to change bylaws. You can even vote for new leadership when the next HOA election comes around. And, if push comes to shove, you could always take legal action.
Header Image Source: (Derrick Brooks / Unsplash)