Homeowner Association Horror Stories
With close to 20 percent of American residential buildings governed by one of the more than 340,000 Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs), it’s no surprise that there are plenty of horror stories about these organizations. While it’s true that a well-run HOA can make life safer and less stressful for residents and members, poor management can turn an HOA into a vehicle for petty grievances and downright tyrannical policies. Some of these stories will make you laugh and some will make you furious, but all of them hold lessons on how to protect yourself both as a homeowner and DIY enthusiast.
The Scandalous Swing Set
The first of our horror stories takes place in 2013, when a family in Missouri installed a backyard swing set and finished the wood with a muted purple stain. They thought the finish would go nicely with the purples and reds of their trees in the Fall. Unfortunately, their HOA found it unacceptable. What followed was an escalating series of fines and letters threatening legal action and even jail time, all over a swing set color choice. Once the case actually got to court, the judge quickly ruled in favor of the homeowners, and they kept their swing set.
As mentioned in this Consumer Affairs write-up, the family celebrated with a victory barbecue, which was also attended by their neighbors—the very homeowners that the association supposedly represented. The family in this story was able to stand up and fight, but if you belong to an HOA, then you may want to make sure your potential swing set project meets their criteria. Here’s a list of 12 backyard swings everyone will enjoy. Just be sure to run them by your HOA before you get started!
When Angela and Jason Mitchell’s home was destroyed in a fire, they knew it would take time to rebuild their lives. They never dreamed that it would take nine months to simply get their HOA to accept their new home’s design. As detailed in this Houston Chronicle article, the disputes began over details as simple as brick color, and devolved over time into increasingly open to interpretation HOA regulations.
Banning Support Animals
There are a number of recurring themes in many of the horror stories about HOA abuse. Sadly, one of these recurring themes is that the victims of the HOA’s tactics tend to be among the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and infirm. The Orlando Sentinel has reported on the ongoing struggles of Robert Brady, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, to keep his dog Bane. Although Brady has resided in the complex for 45 years, and has a Veterans Administration stating that the dog helps keep his mental-health issues in remission, the HOA states that any dog weighing more than 35 pounds is prohibited. Bane weighs 40 pounds.
Once again, one of the parties in this story is an elderly veteran. Fred Quigley served in Korea and Vietnam, but he never ran into a problem flying the flag until he moved into a retirement home near Macedonia, Ohio. When he installed a 15′ flag pole to display his flag, he quickly ran into a backlash from his HOA. It’s true that the HOA requires any flags to be displayed from a stanchion attached to the home. But as is often the case in horror stories like this, the reaction seems to escalate, until the penalties are wildly out of sync with any supposed infraction. The dispute between Quigley and his HOA soon appeared on the national news, and the association eventually dropped its demand that the pole be removed. If you want to fly a flag of your own, here’s a simple tip to store it safely out of reach of critters and dust.
Insane Legal Fees
The next of our HOA horror stories comes from Fairfax, Virginia. And as is often the case, it begins with something small: a political yard sign that was four inches wider than the community rules allowed. This small battle led to problems between the homeowners and the HOA over a roof and deck. As the animosity and bickering escalated, resulting in a legal battle that eventually drained an astonishing $400,000 from the HOA’s coffers. Now bankrupt, the HOA was forced to sell the large common area in the middle of the community, the patch of land that not only gave the community its name, but served as its emotional heart. All because of a 4-inch difference. There’s never been a better argument for knowing how to use a tape measure!
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Fraud and Embezzlement
Sometimes, homeowner associations don’t just struggle with matters of poor judgment, they struggle with outright fraud. For example, a Florida couple who had been longtime officers of their homeowners association face charges of using more than $339,000 of HOA funds for personal expenses. The most disturbing part of that case is that all of those funds came from the wages and savings of member homeowners who made regular monthly payments into the HOA. Unfortunately, their trust and good faith were ultimately betrayed.
Avoid being the subject of one of these horror stories by asking questions at association meetings, and making sure that the HOA books are being audited. Much like theft-proofing your home, a little bit of vigilance can make fraudsters and crooks look for an easier target.
Negligence and Structural Issues
Another type of betrayal tends to occur in apartment and condo complexes, when HOAs don’t perform their due diligence when it comes to paying for community maintenance. Cutting corners keeps money in the pockets of the HOA in the short term, but postponing needed maintenance is always a losing game in the long run. Residents in a Kansas City neighborhood found out the hard way that their HOA dues weren’t being used to make needed repairs. According to a whistle-blower, the property management company failed to make proper repairs to building foundations and structural framing, choosing instead to bandage over the problems with a new coat of stucco (which of course added immense weight to already-weakened buildings). This placed residents and their belongings in danger of sudden failure. There’s just no excuse for not repairing structural elements correctly!
Rainy Day Funds
Often the root cause of those corner cutting horror stories is a failure of the HOA to set aside enough rainy day funds to cover capital expenditures. Whether it’s a condo or apartment complex where the HOA is involved with all exterior work or a single-family home HOA that needs reserves to deal with common areas and administrative costs, if the cash isn’t available when it’s needed, it’s only a matter of time until the whole house of cards collapses. This problem is so prevalent, the Kansas City Star has posited that it may be the next housing crisis.
Although DIYers tend to think of different tasks when it comes to “rainy days,” the only solution an HOAs insufficient rainy day fund is to boost the fees that homeowners need to contribute. That’s rarely popular, and can cause a problem of its own: skyrocketing fees.
Skyrocketing HOA Fees
Maybe it’s because of neglected maintenance coming home to roost, or maybe it’s because of legal fees stemming from what should have been a trivial by-law violation. Whatever the reason, once an HOA is in a financial hole, the only way out is to rely on the member homeowners, either in a one-time levy or with increased regular monthly fees. The problem is that hiked HOA fees can radically change the economics of buying a home in the community, as demonstrated in this Forbes article.
In addition, for homeowners who are living on limited means, even small fees can result in legal action, and attorney’s fees heaped on top of the pile. Add that to the many tiny home disasters waiting to happen, and it’s no wonder that many homeowners aren’t able to stay afloat.
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Once a homeowner is behind on HOA dues, the association can proceed with a foreclosure. In some states, HOAs don’t even need to follow the same process as banks, and it’s possible for a homeowner who owns a home free and clear to lose their home due to a tragically small amount. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors points out that homeowners foreclosed on by banks typically carry debt of $190,000, according to a 2001 study by Sentinel Fair Housing. The same study found that homeowners foreclosed on by HOAs owe an average of just $2,557.
An 83-year-old Houston woman owed her HOA $4,000. Her home was seized, and sold for just $5,000. Almost all of that money went to pay the HOA attorney. Not all HOAs are corrupt or incompetent, but there’s a reason that researching a potential HOA membership is consistently listed as one of the ten things people regret overlooking when buying a home.