Part of the joy of owning your own home is the relative lack of rules. No one can say "no" to that adorable pet axolotl. Not a soul will protest if you paint your bedroom purple. And you want to set up a larger-than-life shrine to Khlo Kardashian in your backyard? Go for it!
Until the HOA finds out, of course.
Ah, the dreaded homeowners association, the very mention of which evokes terror in prospective homeowners. But not every association is a nightmare. Here's what your HOA wishes you knew -- and how to find out if they're out to get you.
1. Don't buy into the negative stereotypes
We understand if the words "petty" and "nasty" come to mind when you think about HOAs, but "Don't believe everything you've heard," says Mary Westheimer, who's served on the board of her HOA in Phoenix, AZ, for 28 years. "Go into it with an open mind."
Yes, there are litigious, pain-in-the-butt HOAs. Plenty of them. But still, the majority are filled with people who don't care a lick about the length of your grass and just want to make sure everyone lives together harmoniously -- and safeguards their investments.
"I've had people say to me, 'Gee, I wish we had an HOA back then,' because they lived near a home where someone doesn't take care of it or started a renovation project and didn't finish it, and they had no recourse," Westheimer says. "With an HOA, you do have some enforcement."
2. Figure out the HOA's style before you move in
No one's denying there are bad apples. So you'll want to try to find out if your HOA is draconian before moving in. Here are some questions Westheimer recommends that you ask:
- Can I see the Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs)? This will let you know what kind of changes are allowed, and if there are any strange conditions, such as paint color or foliage restrictions.
- What should we know about the neighborhood that might not be apparent? If a neighbor or board member mentions "dissension and difficulty," that might indicate a red flag.
- What level of enforcement can I expect -- and are there any fines? "I do hear about communities that send out threatening letters if you have one blade of grass too long," Westheimer says. Make sure the HOA rules won't be too restrictive for your lifestyle, and make doubly sure you won't be fined for ridiculous violations.
- What services do dues cover? This can help you determine whether you think the annual fees are worth their cost.
- How often does the board meet? Boards with regular meetings will be more responsive to your issues and concerns than ones that meet yearly.
3. The rules (usually) exist for a reason
HOAs emerged to help homeowners maintain their property values, making sure a rogue neighbor doesn't prevent everyone else from selling for fair market value. Sure, some seem to create rules just because they can. But most of the regulations you'll come across are actually based on sound logic.
Westheimer's HOA has a height restriction -- no two-story buildings allowed. It exists because the neighborhood has a stunning view of the mountains. If everyone added a second story to their homes, soon no one would have a view.
"The community south of us doesn't have an HOA, and people are building higher and higher," she says. "If they had an HOA looking out for the whole community, that wouldn't have happened."
4. Make friends
Once you've moved in, get to know your local board members. Regulations and bylaws can be arcane, wordy documents. Having someone to help interpret how they relate to your specific property (and lifestyle) can go a long way -- as can having someone to keep you abreast of the way the winds are blowing on the board.
"I certainly would build a relationship with someone on the board before a problem arises," Westheimer says. "Then you can discuss it with them in confidence -- gee, how do I handle this?"
5. Go to meetings -- even before you buy
If you're interested in changing the way your neighborhood operates -- or just dipping your toe into politics -- start attending board meetings. You don't even have to wait until you've moved in; attend a meeting when you're still shopping for a home, if they'll allow it.
"Just be a fly on the wall," Westheimer says. "Then you'll find out if this is a group of people that shouts at each other, or do they work on important issues to the community."
6. If you break the rules, you'll pay for it
Westheimer recalls a family that bought a home in her neighborhood hoping to add a second story -- only to find out only single-level homes were allowed.
"It's heartbreaking, because if they would have asked we would have told them in advance," Westheimer says. Luckily, the family asked before they broke ground. But breaking the CC&R could have resulted in heavy fines. And on top of those fines, you could be dragging in the same construction crew to undo the work you just did, or risk lawsuits and liens.
7. Don't skip your dues
Don't like your HOA's annoying restrictions? It might seem tempting to ignore your dues and declare yourself immune from judgment.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. You agreed to pay your dues when you purchased your home, and the HOA can sue you for nonpayment or put a lien on your home. In worst-case situations, you might even lose your home. If you're in arrears, the association can move forward with foreclosure -- even if your home is paid off.
Levied fines work the same way. Yes, you might be digging in your heels over a dumb rule -- like no window ACs during the hottest summer on record -- but paying is the best way to avoid a legal battle. However, if the regulation is truly idiotic, consider making a written request for a variance, which lets your neighbors decide if you're allowed to break the rules this one time.
8. Know the bylaws
A full understanding of the association's bylaws is the best way to fend off idiocy. Perhaps a board member becomes power mad, and decides solar panels a blight upon the neighborhood. Or fees keep going up and up, and you know there's no way that's legal. The bylaws can be your savior.
Bylaws will typically outline how board members are elected -- and how to remove one who has overstepped his or her bounds. They might also address how often and how drastically fees can change. At the very least, they'll explain how to challenge rules and regulations you find unfair.