Hell on Earth: 4 Reasons I’ll Never Buy in an HOA Again

Article Courtesy of  The Realtor

By Larissa Runkle

Published February 12, 2023


As a first-time homeowner, I hadn’t really considered the potential downsides of living in a homeowners association. At first, it seemed nice to live somewhere with a few rules. After all, they kept everyone’s properties tidy and meant that our road was well-maintained.

But the red flags quickly started piling up once I moved in. And living in an HOA these past few years has felt a lot like getting stuck working on a group project with the most incompetent people in the class: high stakes, low rewards, and lots of frustrating interactions.

Because of this overwhelmingly negative experience, I’m here to spill the tea and share a cautionary tale for would-be homeowners considering making the move to an HOA.

Here are my four reasons I’ll absolutely never buy in an HOA again.

1. Expensive dues

The first thing to know about HOAs is that even if they’re well-run, they tend to be expensive. And while some cost more than others, you could be looking at spending anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars a year in dues or special assessments.

“Many communities impose fees to cover administrative costs and provide public services like landscaping, snow removal, garbage collection, security patrols, clubhouses, and other amenities,” says New Jersey–based real estate attorney James C. DeZao. “Homeowners must also pay their dues timely in order to avoid late fees or liens on their property.”

But the worst part about these expenses is that it doesn’t always equate to more benefits for its members.

An HOA may provide only the very basics so that members still have to pay for certain amenities out of pocket. In my case, HOA fees are paid for trash pickup but not recycling service. So despite a steep quarterly bill that’s approaching $1,000, I still have to traipse across town to the recycling center on a regular basis.

Or an HOA will provide amenities in such a way that some members benefit more than others. For me, this meant recently discovering that nearly half of our shared snow-plowing budget was being used to plow individual driveways, rather than only public spaces as outlined in our covenant.

2. Mismanagement of the shared budget

It’s frustrating enough to share expenses with people who may or may not align with your values. But the biggest dirty truth about HOA finances is that dues often increase frequently when the budget is mismanaged. Or if you didn’t get the full story on your association’s financial standing when you moved in.

“Before I bought my home, I was told the HOA had won a lawsuit,” says David Hampshere, CEO of Purple Egg Real Estate. “I just learned last month that the HOA actually lost the lawsuit. So in addition to my rates going up, I need to pay a special assessment of $1,800 by the end of next month.”

But it doesn’t take something even as dramatic as legal problems to cause your dues to increase drastically and without notice. It might be as simple as board members overspending, or not properly accounting for upcoming expenses. This leads me to my next point…

3. Toxic leadership

If you thought toxicity was possible only in larger organizations, let me stop you right there. Toxic leadership can happen anywhere, and HOAs are an especially rife petri dish for this specific breed of bacteria.

“There is an old saying to avoid anyone who wants to be on an HOA board,” says longtime HOA resident Edward Doherty of New York. “They are the ones prone to mismanagement, and many become board members because they have a burning desire to tell others how to behave.”

So what does toxic leadership actually look like? In a word, like an oligarchy.

“Arbitrary and capricious rules and rule enforcement is common,” says Doherty. “A rule prohibiting bird feeders and wind chimes will be ignored for years until a board member sees finches congregating on the front porch of their arch nemesis.”

4. Overly controlling

But maybe the worst part about living in an HOA is the simple fact that these associations often seek to control nearly every aspect of your property—down to the very flower beds.

“I recently asked the HOA to allow me to change the plants in my flower bed,” says Hampshere. “The response I got was ‘20 foundation plants, 20 intermediate plants.’ This made absolutely no sense. I finally learned that they were telling me the total quantity of plants I need around my house, and the type.”

The thing is, sometimes these supposed “rules” aren’t based on anything (see above about capricious and selective enforcement). I’ve had a number of things on my property come under scrutiny that, when put under a closer lens, didn’t actually violate any of our association rules.
The final word

Sometimes HOA living can’t be avoided. And if that’s the case for you, here’s my best advice.

While it’s often impossible to understand an HOA before you live in it, there are a few things you can do to try to suss out a bad one before you buy.

Doherty recommends talking to former residents whenever possible, as well as looking into the association’s records with a special eye on the budget and board meeting minutes. These details can help determine how healthy (or not) an organization really is.

If you already find yourself in a bad HOA situation, don’t be afraid to self-advocate or seek legal advice.

Since HOAs commonly overstep their boundaries, it’s good to be aware of the rules before you need them. Get familiar with your HOA covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), as well as your state laws regarding how HOAs should be governed. That way you’ll be able to determine when things are running as they should, and when they aren’t.