For some residents, living with a homeowners association (HOA) can be viewed as just another bureaucracy, similar to the IRS, that takes money from them. They see the monthly dues as a bill that's tacked on to the mortgage payment and often residents wonder how the money is spent.
But in the case of HOA's, the lack of knowledge can come from a lack of involvement with the association. Getting involved can make your living environment better.
HOAs have board of director positions that are filled with current homeowners, usually elected annually. The democratic system consisting of regular meetings is meant to be a voice for all of the residents.
"What happens very frequently, you'll find a clique ends up running the association because a lot of people don't want to become involved. So those who have time on their hands can go in and assert their power and their time," says John Sorensen, an attorney who has handled HOA cases.
The board of directors isn't meant to be a popularity contest. Who gets elected to the board is vital because of the important tasks it handles.
"The purpose of the board of directors is to act as a steward for the homeowners and make sure that the property is well taken care of, that there are proper reserves maintained for deferred maintenance and other kinds of unforeseen circumstances that can arise, and generally to lookout for the wellbeing of the association."
But what happens if the HOA isn't doing its job?
Leon Messenie, a La Mesa, California homeowner, says his HOA at his complex was grossly negligent with reserve money for property improvements. "It made everyone so irate that there was a 400 percent increase in attendance the next monthly homeowners meeting;" as a result several members of the board eventually stepped-down.
But, if board members don't voluntarily resign, then residents can call for a special meeting of the association to try to give the current board, or specific members, the boot.
"Generally it's a petition of 10 percent of the homeowners that can call such a meeting and demand a special election," says Sorensen. The vote typically can only come from actual homeowners.
"And that's one of the problems in some associations; there are a lot of absentee owners, so the few that happen to live there end up running the place," says Sorensen.
Fighting a homeowners association can be a struggle. "The law makes it difficult to sue the board of directors for simple negligence. So unless they're really grossly negligent they're not going to be liable for very much," says Sorensen.
Attorney David Peters of Peters & Freedman, L.L.P. agrees with Sorensen. He says trying to rectify the problem with your HOA out of court is best. He adds that if recalls don't work, there are still other options.
"There's a process that says before you go to court on most kinds of issues, Civil Code section 1354 says that you can demand mediation or arbitration. It's a very good idea, especially when you have communication issues, to demand mediation because you can get mediation done at The San Diego Mediation Center for $250 per party," says Peters.
Mediation and arbitration services may be available where you live; check your local resources.
If you're a buyer, Sorensen has an important warning for you to do your homework and read the HOA's bylaws, before closing escrow. "A lot of people don't like to be told what they can and can't do with a property and they buy into a situation where they're very unhappy."
Peters adds, "Some people just don't belong in an association and people need to recognize that. If you're a true absolute spirit and you want to do exactly what you want to do when you want to do it, you're probably not going to survive the covenants, codes and restrictions or the rules and regulations."