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HOAs Behaving Badly -- and How Homeowners Can Fight Back

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nosy Home Owners ((c) Shannon Fagan)

If you own your home, you may be king or queen of your domain. However, if it's part of a planned community or complex, you'll probably need to kowtow to a homeowners association. And you may wind up feeling a bit more like a serf.

The HOA, which enforces community rules and maintains common areas, can be quite useful -- but sometimes it can come across more like Big Brother. Read about HOAs that put neighborliness aside all in the name of rules, and how you can cope if yours does the same.

Changing its tune on a change of paint color

The color blue is supposed to be calming, but in October 2015 it got some neighbors seeing red. According to news site KHOU.com, newlyweds Keely and Peter Dubrova had decided to paint their home in Atascocita, TX, a vivid shade of teal -- with permission from their HOA. A week and a half later, the same board demanded the Dubrovas repaint after an online photo of their so-called Smurf house sparked an uproar, and even threats to "to hang them."

Expert advice: "The HOA cannot legally revoke approval after the homeowners have relied on the approval and spent money on it," says Mike Hunter, an attorney with Horack Talley in Charlotte, NC, who focuses on community and condominium law. So, the Dubrovas should stand their ground; but if they're open to repainting, the HOA should foot the bill.

Not making a concession for a disabled kid

Due to a disability that meant their daughter needed to use the bathroom frequently, Gary and Renee Kuhn of Keizer, OR, needed a fully-appointed RV to drive her to and from doctor appointments. Yet in January, KATU News reported that the McNary Estates Development's HOA wouldn't allow the Kuhns to park said RV in their own driveway, citing bylaws that ban the vehicles. Instead, the HOA suggested the parents park the RV in a lot a few miles away because, hey, why make things easier for parents of a disabled child?

Expert advice: "The federal Fair Housing Act guidelines require HOAs to make 'reasonable accommodations' to persons with disabilities to allow them full use of their home," says Hunter. "So in this case, law in this area leans heavily in favor of the homeowner." It's no wonder, then, that the Kuhns are now suing their HOA.

Cooking the books, casino-style

HOA managers handle tons of cash without much oversight. A cynic could ask: How hard could it be for some of those managers to skim a bit off the top for themselves? Well, that's what Susan Marie Lambert decided to do as an officer of the Woodlake Homeowner Association in San Mateo, CA, bilking the group of almost $3 million over six years.

According to the Daily Journal, Lambert and a contractor billed phony invoices, then the two split the cash for work that was never performed. Homeowners finally noticed something was off in January when Lambert made an ATM withdrawal at a casino using an HOA card. Brilliant!

Expert advice: Hunter advises HOA members to set up security measures to protect HOA funds.

"Keep track of who has signature authority on accounts," says Hunter. "Require two signatures on checks, including at least one board member. Avoid credit cards in the HOA's name, and require a fidelity bond covering any person or company that's handling the HOA's finances."

Retroactively banning roommates

In December, the Idaho-based Buffalo Junction HOA kicked out condo renter Collin Wheeler and his roommate when the organization charged that they did not meet the requirements of a "family." The HOA board wrote a letter stating that the term "is defined to include parents (or single parent) and children and other dependents." But according to news outlet TVN, this rule didn't exist when Wheeler moved in -- it was added, seemingly, to boot young renters like him.

Expert advice: In this case, Hunter questions whether the HOA can legally impose a new rule and make it retroactive. In any case, Wheeler has found a new place -- one with no HOA, he hopes.

Charging a fee to keep the nearby golf course afloat

You buy a home next to a golf course managed by a separate company. But if that golf course threatens to close due to low membership, who pays? In Rancho Mirage, CA, the Morningside HOA thinks all the residents who live along the course need to start yelling, "fore!" According to the Desert Sun, the HOA added a mandatory club membership fee at $250 a month on top of the $1,050 HOA dues.

Expert advice: These residents can most likely lay down the clubs and refuse to pay up.

"The homeowners should examine their governing documents for increasing assessments and consult with an attorney," Hunter advises.

Great place for the Grinch

Residents of Mesa, AZ, didn't have a very merry Christmas in 2015, due to a letter sent from the HOA instructing them to take down holiday decorations outside their homes.

Expert advice: Sure it sounds mean-spirited, but in this case HOAs might determine that they have little choice in the matter, Hunter says.

"If the board allowed Christmas wreaths, they would stand accused of discrimination if they later denied other decorations like a pentagram, distasteful pictures, or political signs," he points out.

To avoid this "slippery slope," Hunter allows that like-minded owners could "propose an amendment to the condo's governing documents that would allow holiday decorations for a finite number of days."