What to do when your homeowners association is making life difficult?  What do HOA’s do?

Q: I read the article you wrote about first-time homebuyers and homeowners associations. The State of Florida has a lot of gated communities and along with that typically comes a powerful homeowners association (HOA). 

Unfortunately, I didn’t know that when I moved and purchased my first house in Port St. Lucie, Florida. I live in a gated-community. Most of my neighbors are retired and older. This was originally designed to be a retirement community.

But the HOA has “opened up” their doors to the general public, like working couples. Unfortunately, the subdivision I live in is not-so-friendly to working couples of different backgrounds. What has happened to us has been an abuse of power of the HOA, constant retaliation and not treating us like the others because we are different. 

Due to a series of events, we were forced to hire a lawyer. The homeowners association has been acting in bad faith since the beginning. What are our options?

What is a Homeowners Association

A: Geez, that’s tough. Your home, and the community in which you live, should be a place of peace. We are sorry your homeowners association is making life difficult. Unfortunately, we get a lot of mail from readers about HOAs that sound power-hungry and like to make mountains out of molehills. 

You didn’t give us a lot of specifics about their bad behavior, so let’s talk generally about HOAs. 

And, let’s start with homeowners. Most communities have a diverse set of homeowners: Some are very nice, mind their own business, and try to be good neighbors. Then, there are those who follow the rules and make life miserable for owners who bend them, even slightly. There are others who abhor any sort of rules and don’t want to follow them. And, you also have those who believe the rules don’t apply to them – but everyone else should follow them.

Homeowners associations come at this from the other direction. Some board members are power mad. They are the folks who like making rules (and forcing others to live by what are often nonsense rules). These folks make a rule for everything and then structure fines as weapons against homeowners. They also may not want to get their hands dirty, and so brush off real problems (like the one you’re facing) to the management company, if there is one. And, then there are the troublemakers. People who are desperate, unhappy, or have evil intent. You want to steer clear. For your own sanity.

Homeowners association late fees, fines, and other charges

Does this sound like your community? While we don’t know on which side of the line your HOA falls, it’s smart to try to stay out of trouble. Make sure you pay your monthly assessments on time. If you pay late, pay the late fee without delay or fuss. Money is fairly objective: You either pay on time or you are late. 

More lenient homeowners associations will waive a late fee or fine from time to time. Others will insist on keeping the late fee. Given how fee- and tip-based our society has become, it appears some HOAs that are dependent on late fees, fines, and other charges. Sam has even seen budget line items showing the expected fee and fine revenue the association will receive the upcoming year. 

What’s a reasonable fine? What’s a reasonable collection action? Hard to say. Some associations are very aggressive on collecting late fees and fines. We know of many that will hire attorneys to collect the fees and fines and add those attorneys’ fees on top of what the homeowner already owes.

We’ve also heard from homeowners who had to pay thousands of dollars in fees and costs that stemmed from a missed payment or a fine that did not get paid on time. 

You should know that HOAs have the right to place a lien on your home to enforce the payment of money owed to the HOA. That lien would give the HOA the right to foreclose on your home if you fail to pay the money owed. It’s really important to remember that. 

Vote people out of the homeowners association 

All this is why you need competent owners running your homeowners association. If it’s just unhappy, vindictive owners, everyone will be miserable. Because that group of people has control over the rules, enforcement of those rules, hiring and firing, and the budget.

Well-written rules can help a community live in peace. But, those rules need to be fair and address real issues that the association faces. Also, they need to be enforced uniformly and in a non-discriminatory fashion. Easier said than done, of course. In a very large association, you might have a rule book made up of dozens of rules. That rule book may also contain a schedule of fees and fines for violations. 

When you move into a building or development with an HOA, you are agreeing to abide by the terms of the association documents. The HOA documents create a private and legal arrangement between you as a homeowner and the HOA. There are usually no governmental agencies that regulate HOAs and how HOAs run the building or development. If you don’t like how the association is run, you gather with your neighbors to vote the people that run the association out. In fact, consider running for the board so you have more authority in making change.

There is one exception to this arrangement. If you find yourself discriminated against on the basis of your race, religion, sexual orientation or other legally protected classes, you may have the right to sue the association or its directors for that discrimination. You may also find certain laws on the books in your state that may give you certain rights and point to other options. 

For some of these legal issues, you’d have to talk to an attorney that has experience with HOAs. You mentioned that you’ve hired an attorney. We hope that your case is working its way to a resolution. If not, talk to the attorney about any other options available to you. And, if the bad behavior continues, think about selling and buying something else.

At the end of the day, you’re entitled to the quiet enjoyment of your property. We hope you get it.