Community style living: is it for you?

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Are you considering the purchase of a condominium, townhouse or another property in a planned community? If so, you may be obligated to join that development’s homeowners’ association, otherwise known as an HOA. You will be required to pay monthly or annual fees for the upkeep of common areas and the building.

Sixty-two million residents in the United States are already living under HOAs, and it would serve you well to understand exactly how HOAs work for, and perhaps against, you.

First, HOA fees may range from $150 to over $500 per month. More upscale communities command higher fees. Plus, if a large expense, say a new roof or irrigation system, is needed and the HOA doesn’t have enough money in its account, you (and the rest of the residents) will be forced to pay an extra assessment. So you can easily do the math; if your complex only has eight residents and the roof costs $16,000, your share will be $2,000. The monthly fees usually cover common areas and services such as landscaping, pools, fitness rooms, garages, clubhouses and elevators.

HOAs work to maintain a certain quality of life for the residents and strive to protect your property value as well. In order to attain and maintain these two goals, HOAs set out rules that you must follow. Often called covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs), these rules may include what color shutters you may have or whether or not you can have a pet. Other restrictions could include where you are allowed to park, what type of vehicle you may have (boats, RVs), or even the type of window treatments that face the street. They can also include the appearance of your landscaping, even down to the frequency with which you refresh the mulch around foundation plantings, or govern whether or not you can display garden art or the flags declaring allegiance to your alma mater.

You may be able to deviate from some of the rules by appealing to the governing body, often a board, to grant you a variance. If not, be aware that HOAs are known for strict adherence and even have been known to foreclose on homeowners for not following the rules. Remember, when you are buying the property, you usually have no choice but to sign these governing statutes, thereby putting you at risk if you deviate.

HOAs are not always thought of as undemocratic or power hungry, though. Good news surfaced when a survey sponsored by the Foundation for Community Association Research showed that for every homeowner who rated the overall experience of living in a homeowner association as negative, seven saw it as positive.

So, if you like the appearance of a community where everything is kept nice and clean, this is most likely the HOA doing its job. For you, this means less yard work, less snow shoveling, and perhaps no lawn watering due to a community-wide irrigation system. Many HOAs sponsor adult get-togethers, movie nights, tennis teams and children’s activities too.

HOAs also assist homeowners with complaints. Instead of approaching your neighbor about their noisy dog (or children), you simply call your HOA representative to handle it. Voilà, it’s taken care of and you remain anonymous. Take caution here; just as you can file a complaint against your neighbor, so can they…against you!

But with all the positives usually come some frustrating incidents. Take the 90-year-old WWII vet who had to fight tooth and nail to fly a flag in his front yard, or the California man who was fined for planting what his HOA considered too many roses in his yard. He took this fine to court and lost, eventually paying more than $70,000 in legal fees.

You will likely hear more outlandish rules floating around the Internet these days, such as fining pet owners for walking their small dogs through a condo complex lobby rather than carrying them. Most successful communities are more reasonable than these silly examples, but be sure to check before making an offer on a property.

Last but certainly not least is your temperament. If you hate being told what to do and have always longed for your own slice of paradise with complete control of managing your property, this type of community living may not be right for you. HLM

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