First-Time Homebuyers Guide to HOAs

By Laura Otto
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Community associations—HOAs, condos, co-ops, and mixed-use communities—offer choices, lifestyles, amenities, services, and efficiencies that people value. An estimated 70 million Americans choose to live in 350,000 planned communities, and that number continues to grow.

Many community associations offer services and amenities that most Americans can’t afford on their own—swimming pools, tennis courts, playgrounds, lakes and ponds, professional security, and even golf courses. These communities also provide some degree of protection against neighborhood degradation and deterioration—cars on cinder blocks, dilapidated homes, or yards that are not maintained.

But with all of their inherent advantages, community associations occasionally face complicated issues, none more common than the challenge of balancing the best interests of the community as a whole with the preferences of individual residents. Issues often arise because of unrealistic expectations, misinformation, and misunderstanding.

You can help ensure a more positive and fulfilling community experience by learning all you can about a community association before you buy a home.

What You Need to Know
When you have your eyes on a particular home, the first thing you should do is ask your real estate agent if it’s part of a community association. If so, try to obtain copies of the governing documents, including the Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs), and read the information carefully. If you don’t understand something, discuss it with your agent or consult an attorney for guidance. Ask your agent how to get these documents. You may have to pay a fee.

It’s essential that you—a prospective buyer—remember that homeowners agree to comply with CC&Rs when they move into an association- governed community. These rules typically apply to assessments, architectural guidelines (such as additions, decks and paint colors), landscaping, maintenance, satellite dishes, clotheslines, fences, flags, parking, pets, patios, and more.

You can also talk to people who live in the community. Find out how they feel, not only about the neighborhood, but also about how the community is governed and managed. Ask to talk to the president of the association, a member of the elected board or the professional who manages the community.

Assessments: Your Fair Share
Before buying a home in an association-governed community, you should view the association budget because it sets the level of assessments and services. Collected monthly, quarterly or annually, assessments are not voluntary. They are mandatory homeowner dues that must be paid or the association can take legal action, like placing a lien against your property, an action that can lead in rare cases to foreclosure. More importantly, as a member of that community, it’s your obligation to pay your fair share of the costs.

Determine what the assessment covers and what it doesn’t cover. Assessments typically cover expenses for items such as maintenance of common areas, trash collection, snow removal, private streets, recreational facilities, and other amenities. In some communities, assessments cover exterior maintenance to units.

Determine if the budget includes a reserve fund for major costs. Most communities will require large expenditures at some time—roofs replaced or private roads and parking areas resurfaced, for example. If there is no reserve fund, the association may have to impose special assessments when major projects become necessary—and that can be an expensive and unanticipated financial burden.

How to Manage Your Expectations
You’ve identified your ideal home. You’ve done your homework. You’re ready to buy. But there’s one more thing on your checklist: Plan to manage your own expectations. With all their advantages, community associations are not perfect. Judgments are subjective and subject to change. Decisions are not always met with unanimous approval. Mistakes are made.

As you think about your own expectations, remember that some personalities are not cut out for community association living. Some people cringe when faced with rules that must be enforced to maintain established community standards. Ask yourself if you’re likely to have buyer’s remorse the first time you run up against a rule you don’t like.

Finally, once you’re in your home, make the decision to get involved in your community. Attend annual meetings, serve on a committee, or even seek a seat on the association board. It’s your community, your investment, and your home.

HOAresources.com explores questions and comments from community association members living in condominiums, homeowners associations, and housing cooperatives. We then assemble trusted experts to provide practical solutions to your most commonly asked, timely questions. We never use real names, but we always tackle real issues. Have a question or comment about your community association? Submit here for consideration:

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Laura Otto

Laura Otto is editor of CAI’s award-winning Community Manager. A seasoned journalist, Laura previously worked for a creative, advocacy agency in Washington, D.C., where she wrote and edited content for a variety of public health clients. Prior to that, Laura served as a senior writer and editor for the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Laura is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia.