Our firm limits its practice to community association law, which is the technical term for the field of law dealing with homeowner associations (HOAs) and condominium associations (COAs). We also handle work with other types of communities, such as mobile home parks. We represent both associations and individual homeowners, so we see both sides of the problems. Everyday we receive multiple calls from homeowners who have problems with their association, often after they have gotten into trouble. We have blogged about this topic numerous times, but since the laws are revised each year, the advice is subject to change, although not much. More importantly, we feel the need to say it over and over to help as many people as possible.
Tip No. 1:
Read your association documents and not just the ones you were given. You should have Declarations of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (aka Decs or CCRs) or a Declaration of Condominium plus Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation and most likely Rules and Regulations or Architectural Guidelines (or both). Go to the official records for your county, by searching on the name of your county and Official Records. Look for a link to search the official records and search for amendments, supplements, modifications, restrictions, bylaws, articles, and notices for any new restrictions or amendments and modifications to the originals, plus any notice of preservation if the original Declarations are approaching thirty years old. This applies to HOAs only, not COAs. Read every document carefully and if you are unsure of the meaning and it may have some effect on you or your property, ask a lawyer to interpret it for you. The best way to stay out of trouble is to know the rules and obey the rules. The best way to keep your association from becoming corrupt is to know the rules and make it obey the rules.
Tip No. 2:
Read the Florida statutes governing your association (Chapter 720 for HOAs, Chapter 718 for COAs and Chapter 723 for mobile home park lot tenancies where you own the home, but rent the lot). Familiarize yourself with the relevant statutes, but do not try to cite them and cram them down your Board of Directors throat, at least not without asking a lawyer if your interpretation of them is correct. Knowing the law helps protect you, but misquoting or misinterpreting the law makes you look like a troublemaker and a nut job. Plus, there is case law (judge's rulings) which interpret the statutes and give them a meaning other than what a layperson would think they mean. Not all judges interpret them the same way and different jurisdictions (courts in different counties) could have different rulings. Even the appellate courts (there are five in Florida) do not always agree on the meaning. The law is not always black and white. That would be too easy.
Tip No. 3:
Never withhold your assessments (aka dues, maintenance fees). The law does not permit it. Here is where the law is black and white. If you do not agree with the way the association is being operated or managed, either recall the Board of Directors, elect new board members, or seek legal advice. Withholding your assessments will result in you being foreclosed on and losing your home.
Tip No. 4:
Always pay your assessments. While this sounds like Tip No. 3, it is not. Often owners experience some kind of hardship, whether it is financial, family, or physical. Your association cannot give you a break because you cannot afford to pay and the courts are not allowed to give you a break either. Inability to pay is not a defense and the association can foreclose on your property a lot faster than any bank. It can also foreclose even though the bank is foreclosing too.
Tip No. 5:
Always ask permission before making changes to your property. If you are unsure if you need permission, check your documents. If you are not positive whether permission is required or not, ask an attorney to review the documents.
Tip No. 6:
Never proceed with an improvement if your application has been denied -- even if you think the association is wrong. The law requires you to get a court order, called a declaratory judgment, determining who is right and who is wrong. Proceeding despite a denial will just result in a lawsuit against you.
Tip No. 7:
Always keep you property maintained. The courts cannot consider financial hardship. When you purchased a property in an association, you agreed to keep it maintained. The excuse you were unaware there was an association is not a defense.
Tip No. 8:
Participate in meetings and even campaign to be a board member. Get your neighbors involved. If no one is watching what is going on it is very easy for an association to become a corrupt organization. If you do not agree with the way the association is being operated and managed, become a board member or recall the Board of Directors. Legal fights are expensive. Volunteering is not.
Tip No. 9: Whenever you apply to your Architectural Review Committee (ACC or ARB), save a copy and when you get it back approved, save that copy FOREVER. More importantly, make sure you get it back.