It's no secret I have been an advocate for homeowners embroiled in disputes with their associations. I originally went to law school to practice employment law. I changed directions when I bought my home in a HOA and my welcome to the neighborhood consisted of a volley of "f-bombs" from someone claiming to be the HOA president.
In the past couple of years I have changed direction in my practice of community association law. Not only did I realize individual owners suing an association is difficult for my clients, both emotionally and financially, but creates a hostile environment for everyone that often lingers even after the dispute is resolved. I now focus my attention on representing the associations. I figure I can make a difference by helping associations proactively avoid litigation rather than helping the owners litigate. Not all disputes can avoid litigation. There will always be those one or two homeowners in every community that will be stubborn or even aggressive and want to fight, but litigation should be a last resort.
Let's face it -- if your association has a bad reputation it will affect property values and the resale of homes. Desirable associations attract home buyers.
The ingredients for a good association are education, communication, the right CAM and the right lawyer.
Most homeowners do not intentionally violate the covenants. Just because the homeowner received a copy of the governing documents, doesn't mean they understand them. If they did, most members who are past due in their assessments would realize the association can lien and foreclose on their home and would keep the assessments current. I come across homeowners every day who believe if the bank is foreclosing the association cannot foreclose. They are surprised when their homes are sold by the association with a bank foreclosure pending.
There is a simple fix to this. The association should have a website the provisions of the governing documents can be explained, broken down in individual topics, and then promote this website regularly. Make sure new owners receive the web address right away. Encourage members to review the website before undertaking improvements to property. There are a number of services out there which help those technology-challenged individuals build a website. If a website isn't feasible, create a newsletter! Now you have education and communication!
Another point about communications -- confrontational notices do not work. It is human nature to become defensive when being harshly reprimanded. I believe the first notice to a homeowner should be a gentle reminder and an invitation to discuss the issue at a meeting if necessary. The old saying "you catch more flies with honey" is true. You will get more owner cooperation if you acknowledge they either did not know better or forgot and have a chance to remedy the situation. Threatening to send them to the association lawyer if they do not obey demands only ends up costing the association and owners more money for legal fees.
The right CAM is important. Identifying the right CAM is not so easy and there is no one size fits all. Some associations need the CAM to be very involved and some only need a CAM to collect assessments, pay bills and send out violation notices. The right CAM will meet your expectations and work well with the association. The wrong CAM will partner with the lawyer to increase billable hours for both of them by fueling disputes. The wrong CAM will control the association funds and keep board members out of financial decisions. The wrong CAM will make board decisions without the board members being involved. The wrong CAM will think it's their job to run the association, not the board.
The same applies to the lawyers. The right lawyer will answer the board's questions and encourage the resolution of disputes early. The wrong lawyer will lead the board to believe they have the ultimate power and cannot lose a dispute. The wrong lawyer will bully and abuse homeowners.
Associations should be proactive when dealing with violations and collections. Identify the problem areas and work on them proactively. Make sure your owners know not paying assessments means they risk losing their home and usually quickly. Let them know the association doesn't want their home, but has a duty to collect assessments from everyone. Let them know financial hardship is not a defense the courts will entertain. Offer a payment plan to help out those who are already past due, but be aware that if the association lawyer handles the payment there are outrageous fees to set it up and process payments. The association can facilitate the payment plan so it stands a better chance of success. If your association has authority to impose fines, make sure the members know about the process and don't try to rig it by appointing members to the fining committee who are friends and supporters of the board or biased against the owner. Make it a fair hearing before the fining committee or the association will most likely end up in litigation. Make sure all members are aware of the process for applying for approval to implement improvements to their property. Communicate on a regular basis those items that require approval as well as those that do not.
There is a better way to have an association and not make everyone in it miserable. It's not easy because most members of the association don't care to be involved or hear about it, but it is possible.