HOAs: The Final Showdown

How to cope with your homeowner's association

Ah, homeowners associations. Some love them. Some hate them. Some really, really hate them. But love or hate (or really, really hate), for 60 million-plus Americans, dealing with these straight-laced (and sometimes slightly sadistic) organizations is a hard fact of life. There’s no getting rid of them. However, getting over them, getting through to them, and getting around them can be a different story. As a new homeowner, or as a buyer who is thinking of taking the plunge, the time has come to start tucking some tricks up your sleeve. Follow these pointers to keep relations with your HOA sailing smoothly.

Homeowners associations can be a thorn in your side if you aren’t in the know.

Know the rules: You may not like the rules, but if you intend to stretch, skirt, or otherwise pit yourself against the laws of the land, understanding what you’re up against is your first defense – and your most useful tool. With HOAs as with pretty much any system in life, knowing its inner workings is only going to make you a better navigator of the water rapids, should they arise around the bend. So read that list of regulations they give you before you crunch it up into fireplace kindling, just this once.

Close ranks: The upside to being subjected to group regulations is that, if one regulation in particular is rubbing you the wrong way, odds are you’re not the only one showering your hair stylist with indignant rants about it. Get to know your neighbors. It’s a lot easier to fight back in numbers. Also, if you break a minor rule or two yourself (you know, like hanging a clothesline in your backyard so as to delicately air dry your great-grandmother’s collection of hand-embroidered lace tablecloths), friendly neighbors are less likely to report your shocking breach in clothesline etiquette to the HOA the next day. Or at the very least, if they do take particular offense to clotheslines, they’ll be more likely to talk to you about it directly first, which will save you some money on fines at the end of the day.

Approval vs. removal: Can it be a pain in the dairy air to have every little thing approved before you actually install it on your property? Oh yes. That said, you know what’s worse than filling out that stupid paperwork? Installing a pricey fence that is a quarter of an inch too high, being attacked by your HOA for it, having to take down that self-same fence (there goes another Saturday), and then filling out all of the stupid paperwork anyway because – blast it all – you still need a fence. Look, nobody likes mosquitoes. But it’s better to just bite the bullet and put the mosquito net up in the first place than it is to deal with six months of malaria later. And remember: just because something isn’t listed as expressly forbidden in the HOA rulebook doesn’t mean it’s permissible by default. Buckle down and take care of business, or the odds are that you’ll live to regret it further down the road.

The facts about fines: Even if you watch your step, the day may well arrive when you find yourself facing a fine of some kind or another. Hey, people have gotten in trouble for letting the edge of their tires trespass two inches over the perimeters of their lawns before. Sooner or later, everyone’s bound to have a slip up. When that fine arrives in your mailbox, you have three choices. One: you can pay it. Irksome, perhaps, but at least it’s done and over with right away. Two: you can apply for a variance. A variance is an exception to the usual HOA rules, and although it might not be as quick and easy as just paying the fine, if the broken rule is important enough that you’re likely to break it again in the future, your best bet is to take care of business now. Third: you can sue the bastards. But unless your case is extreme, we wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of the time, homeowners who go this route just end up having to pay the fine anyway … along with a few thousand dollars in lawyers’ bills.

Homeowners associations can be a thorn in your side if you aren’t in the know. But as long as you’re familiar with the rules (and how to stretch them), you can keep stress levels to a minimum. Just remember the next time you want to punch someone in the nose for forbidding you to change the paint color of your house form Mojave Brown to Tumbleweed Taupe, these people may also be the only obstacle keeping your neighbors from building a full-scale jungle gym on their roof for their pet bonobo monkeys. Take a deep breath. Apply for a paint color variance. Feel confident in the fact that life will go on.

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Kristine Serio
Kristine Serio is an editor and writer with Author Bridge Media. Her real estate roots stretch back to her grandfather, who launched a profitable second career as an investor during the 1950s. She is now passionate about empowering women through real estate writing. Her authors and entrepreneurs have been featured in The New York Times, O: the Oprah Magazine, and the San Diego Union Tribune.
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