Homeowner horror stories:
Associations are heaven or hell
Article Courtesy of Bankrate.com

By Paul Bannister 
Posted July 28, 2003

To many people it's Shangri-La. Heaven. Paradise. 

Everybody's lawn is manicured. No one's gone to an electric chartreuse and fuchsia color scheme. No one's got her granny panties -- or thongs, for that matter -- flapping on a clothesline. No junk cars in the side yard. No sofas on the front porch. 

Everything looks wonderful. 

To others, it's sheer hell. Hades. Purgatory. 

Skip one Saturday mowing the lawn and the Gestapo comes down on you. Four hundred and some houses are the same boring shade of beige. You can't get that nice fresh-air fragrance in your unmentionables. That classic Corvette you were planning to restore got towed away, and your wife has been officially informed that the cute little swing near the front door is a violation punishable by death. 

Depending on your perspective, your homeowner's association is either the best of all worlds ... or the worst. 

Here are just a few homeowner horror stories that have been reported to Bankrate: 

A man from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., lost his home because he planted too many roses on his four-acre site. The board fined him and watched monthly as the fines mounted.

When they slapped a lien on his home, he went to court and lost because he'd transgressed the board's architectural design rules. He was stuck with the board's $70,000 legal fees and lost his home to the bank.

A woman from Pomona, Calif., who was involved in a divorce fell behind with her monthly dues. The board said she owed $1,000; she said it was less than $800, and they went to court when the board threatened foreclosure.

The woman was right -- the volunteer board's amateur accountants goofed, but the judge ruled she should have made back payments during the dispute, anyway, and the therapist was handed a $22,000 legal bill.

A couple from Lawrenceville, Ga., found they had a $3,500 lien on their house when they tried to sell it. The homeowners association had been fining them every day they left pink flamingos on their lawn but didn't tell them. The association got the money, but the couple have filed suit to get it back.

A Maryland man asked for a six-foot fence as protection from a neighbor who'd attacked him with a log. The board denied the request, so the homeowner sued -- and lost. It cost him $23,000 in legal fees and interest. 

Chastened, he built a shorter fence, but in places it was several inches taller than the four feet allowed. Board members came with a tape measure, fined him, slapped a lien on the home and seized the man's paycheck. "They took all my savings and treated me like a common criminal," he says.

Sometimes, the long-gone developer causes problems. A Hillsborough, Calif., builder put houses wherever he could, then donated unusable areas as 'parkland' to the private community. The donated areas turned out to be unstable hillside that required the homeowners to pay loads of money for some expensive maintenance. 

Near snowy Donner Pass, Calif., a development has rules that you can't drive over the snow or clear it from around your house to preserve the rural appearance and to provide zones for snowmobiles.

A woman resident with a back injury wasn't able to walk the half mile to her house, so she drove over the snow. The association fined her up to $500 a day. She faces more than $50,000 in fines and has been fighting her HOA in court for three years. The case is unresolved.

A Tampa, Fla., woman thought her attorney had paid all her delinquent HOA fees of more than $4,000, but she was wrong by $497. It cost her the house.

The busy physical therapist ignored legal papers mailed to her, the association foreclosed and held a courthouse auction. A property company snapped up the house for $4,651, the price of the HOA's legal fees, then sold it for $88,000. 

A family that cares for five foster children in Port Richey, Fla., was threatened with eviction from their residential development. The association considered having foster kids a business because the state paid $2,028 a month to care for the children. 

The 56-cents-an-hour 'business' owners are still fighting the case.

Sometimes a poor homeowner feels the wrath of the HOA even when he tries to succumb to the obscure rules and regulations. The nightmare for one Florida resident started only after he admitted he made a mistake and informed the HOA he was going to rectify it immediately. 

It seemed this hapless soul painted his house a bright blue -- after believing an HOA's secretary who said prior approval by the HOA was merely a formality. When he learned of his misdeed, he quickly agreed he would switch to a sanctioned shade. 

That's what made the subsequent assault by the HOA so bizarre. 

First it held a meeting to discuss the crime with neighbors -- but didn't invite the culprit. Then they stuffed fliers in each neighbor's mailbox -- carefully skipping the scene of the crime -- in which they went on at length about their outrage over the unauthorized paint job. 

When he got a copy of the flier from a sympathetic neighbor, the stunned homeowner wrote to the HOA president, reiterating his willingness to repaint the house and politely objecting to what he felt was needlessly abusive treatment and a dismal lack of neighborliness.

He got no response from the grand poobah but did receive a threatening letter from the HOA lawyer. 

The final straw came at the end of the month when the HOA's monthly newsletter came out -- while the repaint work already in progress. The top story on the front page was a copy of the lawyer's nasty threatening letter to the harried homeowner, along with a note warning that all such miscreants would face a similar fate.

Rarely, homeowner association horror tales have a happy ending. Take the case of Houston attorney Wendy Laubach, who helped a man get his house back. Ill with a brain tumor, the man fell behind on $600 in condo dues. His association sued to get the money, piling on $4,600 more in legal fees. When the man couldn't pay on time, the association foreclosed and sold his $55,000 home for $17,000. Laubach got the foreclosure voided, a rare event. 

7 steps to survive the homeowner-association challenge
By Paul Bannister 
Posted August 22, 2003

Survival in a common interest development governed by a board of directors or homeowners association can be challenging. Some residents love them, some hate them. But it's a real case of "love it or leave it." Or more accurately, "Like it or lump it." 

Here's 7 critical steps you should take -- before and after taking the plunge -- to survive the HOA and CC&R experience: 

1.)     Read everything. Carefully go over every document. In almost all states, HOAs must disclose fully what covenants will be enforced, and what rules you'll have to live by. Don't wait until you're about to sign, insist on seeing the disclosures beforehand. You have to know what you're getting into. 

2.)     Demand to be told the financial condition of the HOA -- are there sufficient funds in its reserves to repair common areas? Does a reputable firm or a bonded individual handle its funds? 

3.)     Find out if the association is engaged in litigation that could mean massive assessments against you. 

4.)     Ask around, talk to residents -- is the association constantly in conflict with its members? Does it prefer lawsuits to mediation?" 

5.)     Hire an attorney. And make sure to get one who specializes in real property issues. 

6.)     Get involved. If you're not happy living in a community association, see if you can change the way it operates -- by getting involved. Attend HOA meetings; see if your neighbors feel as you do. 

7.)     Get elected. Best of all, get elected to the association board. Then, you'll make the rules!

If you're looking for help dealing with your HOA, visit the American Homeowners' Resource Center or the National Institute of Community Management or call its hotline at (800) 387-1099.