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Joe Wise: Nathan, do you remember your first apartment?
Nathan: I do, I do. Right out of college I was not yet in a position to afford my own home, so I rented.
Joe Wise: As did I. And that had many unique opportunities. You had a problem with your plumbing or your appliances or the neighbor or something like that you called the landlord. And the landlord could theoretically be of greater service to you because they owned the building and they had tenants living in it. And you know when I bought my first condominium I thought that’s a little bit of what I was getting.
Nathan: Yes. Yes. I have had to learn the hard way that the H.O.A. is not my landlord.
Joe Wise: That’s right. And that’s not to say that it isn’t a wonderful way to live and provide great value for homeowners and the folks who call communities in homeowners’ associations home, it’s just to recognize that there is a fundamentally different relationship between a homeowner and a common interest community and tenant in a rental property. When you purchase in a common interest community, the big question is what is your relationship to the homeowners’ association? You’re a homeowner; this is your association. And so I think very often people who approach it initially through the frame of reference of the ‘I’m a renter and this is my landlord’, see a me and they mentality. I occupy this unit and they are responsible to me in some way. And sometimes that assumption can transfer over to the homeowners’ association. And that’s not really an accurate way to think about it. It’s really better to think not me and they but to think me and we; the we being you and your neighbors. Because together you own property in common and it’s through your homeowners’ association that it’s maintained and protected and preserved for your current and future enjoyment.
Nathan: So let’s talk about some examples of where this understanding of your relationship to the H.O.A. affects some decisions you might make. For example, when it comes to wanting to change the color of your door.
Joe Wise: That seems like a perfect perfectly reasonable thing. You’ve bought a home and you want to personalize it to your preferences and tastes but you have to recognize that very often in a common interest community part of what gives them their appealing aesthetic is that there is some consistency of designs standards. And so the association very often has a very real interest in maintaining some standard there. And that’s not to say you can’t paint your door, it’s just to say you need to investigate what your rights and responsibilities as a property owner are and make sure that you are clear and acting in accord with the rights and responsibilities that you have.
Nathan: And another side of that is when it comes for expectations about who pays for the deck improvements or maintenance or to paint your door or the shutter needs to be repainted. That in this relationship it’s not me and they; they are painting the door, but it’s we are painting the door. And so sometimes I find homeowners come to an understanding of how some of those are scheduled maintenance improvements and they have to wait ‘til the next year when the painter comes around to do their section of the neighborhood.
Joe Wise: That’s right. And I think also in that is helpful to remember that when the homeowners’ association spends money they’re essentially spending your money and so it’s in everyone’s interest that a homeowners’ association be prudent in expenditure of the dollars because that’s what keeps the budget in line and assessments as reasonable as they can possibly be set. So for example, some community governing documents make it very clear that storm doors belong to the individual unit. While others, it may be a little bit fuzzy. And so I have seen situations where homeowners’ associations have said we’re going to be responsible for all the storm doors. Well, if you’re a property and you own a condominium in a 100-unit complex, how is it any better for you to be responsible for one percent of 100 storm doors or be responsible for your own storm door? It’s essentially the same thing. What it does is it gives you the homeowner greater opportunity to decide what to prioritize, when and how. And so what a homeowners’ association really exist to do in some regard is to identify the common needs and provide a means by which those needs are met. And so understanding how your association has done that in the past and understanding how it plans to do that in the future is really key to understanding how you fit into that and can become a part of your association.
Nathan: Now another area of where rethinking how we engage our homeowners’ association and what expectations we have of the association that I find comes common to homeowners, especially new ones, is when it comes to your neighbors pet is somehow interfering with your yard. Or your neighbors are being noisy and you’re wondering how do I address that issue in the context of my H.O.A.? When you had a problem when you were renting you’d call your landlord and expect him to engage that neighboring renter about it. But in an H.O.A. it’s a little bit different.
Joe Wise: It is a little bit different. I’ve actually had homeowners ask me to evict their neighbor. And the homeowners’ association can’t simply evict a neighbor based on their bad conduct. Really I think the best way to start from it is to ask yourself what would I do if I were not a part of a homeowners’ association? So if I have a neighbor that is causing disruption or offense to me, a perfectly reasonable thing to do would be to politely and directly but with a neighborly spirit approach that neighbor and make them aware of the concern you have and ask if they might help you resolve it. At the same time, bear in mind, at least in the example you gave noise and animal consideration, those are, in all likelihood, violations of your local ordinance. And so very often the city or municipality in which you reside has ordinances on the books that deal with noise and nuisance and nuisance animals. And so investigating what enforcement options are available to you is important in figuring out how to resolve your issue. A letter from the homeowners’ association is not nearly as effective as a police cruiser or an animal control officer who has greater authorities to enforce than a homeowners’ association may.
Nathan: So yeah, part of what I hear you discussing is that enforcement is one of the things to carefully think about as far as expectations of your homeowners’ association that there are sometimes authorities, third parties that are more effective and equipped at enforcing certain aspects to your life in the neighborhood than is the H.O.A.
Joe Wise: That’s right. And that doesn’t mean that the homeowners’ association is taking a dismissive or disinterested attitude toward those issues; it simply means the associations looking at it from the perspective of what is the most efficient and cost-effective way that we can help a homeowner reach their desired outcome. And so yes, the homeowners’ association could hire an attorney. The attorney could write a letter. The letter may not get the desired response and so perhaps the attorney then goes back and draws up a complaint and files suit in the local court and serves the neighbor those papers. And now the association is incurring legal bills that have quickly gone from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars and still hasn’t moved the resolution any further forward that if the call had been raised with the police or with an animal control officer. And so it’s not to be disinterested in those things; it’s just to say let’s find the most effective and efficient way to meet these needs and pursue that first.
Nathan: Another difference in the relationship is sometimes if you had a problem when you were renting you would expect items to be addressed immediately by your landlord. But one of the things I also hear you alluding to…
Joe Wise: I don’t know who your landlord was.
Nathan: I want it and I want it now.
Joe Wise: Yes. But we clearly did not rent from the same landlord, but that’s right.
Nathan: But sometimes a homeowner will understand that…
Joe Wise: That’s right.
Nathan: …those trees or those shrubs are to be trimmed.
Joe Wise: That’s right. It depends; this is where you get into the intricacies of an individual community. If you’re in a community of two, three, 400 homes, there is probably already a plan in place for how to go about trimming the shrubbery or cutting trees or doing those kinds of large-scale projects that can be most cost-effectively approached in some sort of planned and scheduled way. And so it’s important to recognize that when you’re identifying a need it may fit into a broader plan for the management of your association. And so it may be something that isn’t scheduled to be done for several months or maybe even a full year or two away. And it’s most cost-effective to reach those conclusions in some sort of planned way. A homeowners’ association that’s constantly trying to balance the tension between being responsive and being efficient. You can be responsive by responding to every service request within 24 hours, and people are going to love that until they get the bill. Or you can be efficient and respond to those requests in a program and planned way, keep a lid on costs and achieve the same outcome. And so it’s just a matter of getting those expectations aligned so that you hit that desired spot between the responsive and efficient that gets you the greatest possible value for the most manageable price. And that’s ultimately what you’re pushed between.
Nathan: So, when thinking about how to constructively engage your H.O.A., one important reminder is not to approach it like a landlord relationship but to recognize, number one, sometimes the H.O.A. isn’t the most well equipped to enforce some of the problems or resolutions that you’re having or needing. And also that the H.O.A. may have a more efficient means that means it’s proactive and scheduled versus on demand. And then also there’s an economy to the arrangement and that is it’s not about me and they, but it’s about me and we. That any expenses the association incurs is a corporate expense that you’re a part of.
Joe Wise: That’s right. And so it’s in everybody’s interest to try to manage that in the most efficient way possible. As a homeowner in a homeowners’ association, the best thing you can really do is inform yourself. Read the budget, ask to see a copy of the management plan or ask to see a copy of the reserve study and begin to understand how all these pieces fit together. If you’re in a self-managed community you may be making these requests of volunteers who are already donating considerable amount of time and energy to the association. If you’re with a professional management organization, ask the manager. The Community Association Manager can be a helpful resource to you in understanding how all of these pieces fit together and how they can support you in getting to the outcome you seek.
Nathan: So, in summary it’s not me and they; it’s me and we. And it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities and get involved.
This episode of Community Wise was hosted by Nathan Flora and Joe Wise and is a production of Wise Property Solutions. For more helpful information, visit us on the web at wisepropertysolutions.com where you can view our blog and sign up for our eNewsletter.