HOA 101: Welcome to the Neighborhood.... But Did You Read Your HOA Docs?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

So you’ve bought that nice home at the end of a cul-de-sac and you’re just getting settled in. You’ve cut down the tree in the side yard that was blocking the sun from your house and you’ve parked your boat in its place. You’re in the process of installing a chain link fence around your front yard when the letter arrives. Your HOA has informed you that your boat is in violation of the rules, as is the chain link fence. And by the way, you needed to submit an application to cut down your tree. Welcome to the community!

Unfortunately, this is how many new residents in St. Charles get introduced to their association, and it often leads to lasting negative impressions. Although all homebuyers are supposed to receive copies of the governing documents for their particular HOA, many report having never received them, and just as many receive but never read them. Not knowing what the ground rules are and what is and isn’t allowed too often leads to misunderstandings and conflict.

So what is the purpose of your HOA? Who runs it? And what are its responsibilities and what powers does it have? To put it simply, the purpose of an HOA is to maintain and preserve the values of the properties within the community. Each HOA is run by a board of directors, who are volunteers elected each year during an annual meeting. This board has three general responsibilities: the collection of annual assessments, maintenance and improvement of the common elements in the community, and enforcement of the rules governing the HOA. Most boards hire a property management company to run the day-to-day operations of the association and to perform such tasks as inspections, assessment collections, and execution of contracts the board may enter into. This management company is your first line of communication for all questions concerning the HOA. Most boards meet regularly—either monthly or quarterly—to handle association business. These meetings are open to the public, and usually include a “homeowners’ comments” segment where you can address the board directly with your concerns.

The rules governing an HOA are defined in the documents you should have received during the home buying process. They typically include a set of by-laws, a list of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CCRs), and often a set of architectural guidelines explaining what can and can’t be done around the exterior of one’s house. This is where the rules on all those changes you were trying to make can be found, along with the application process for requesting permission to make such changes. As an owner, these documents are crucial to understanding what is expected of you and what you can expect from the association. If you do not have a set, you can request one through your HOA’s management company.

It’s been a few months now. You’ve submitted your applications and you’ve met with the board of directors. You’ve taken down your chain link fence, you’ve screened your boat, and there is a brand new pear tree in your front yard. What else is there for you to do? Get involved. Attend those open meetings. Most HOAs have committees handling everything from architectural applications to social events. Join one. Nothing makes an HOA stronger than active involvement by the people who live there. Your involvement just might help keep the next new resident from making the same mistakes you made.

Mike Billard is a board member of the Adams Landing Townhome Association, the Wakefield Neighborhood Association, and the Smallwood Village Association.