Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Years' Resolution - Peaceful Living in Community Associations

For years I have represented homeowners in disputes with their associations, whether it is a homeowners' association, condo association, or mobile home park.  These battles are not easy, emotionally, and are very expensive, with costs of more than $100,000 if the matter goes to trial.  Even if the client wins, the end result is misery.  These disputes result in a civil war with the board of directors and their supporters on one side and the homeowners and their supporters on the other side.  Throw in a lawsuit and you have everyone behaving badly because these disputes are very personal and emotional.  The dispute is about the rights of a homeowner to do what they want with their property when they have entered into a contract (the Declarations and Bylaws) waiving some of those rights.  Too often people start engaging in criminal behavior. I have had clients victimized by some pretty violent actions that could have had tragic endings.  Pets disappear, vehicles mysteriously burst into flames, homes are broken into and vandalized, live snakes and dead birds are found in yards and sometimes in homes. It's unbelievable the conduct that goes on once a dispute reaches the level of litigation.

Few people can afford to spend $100,000 or more and even if they can, the stress is another barrier. After all, a typical case can take three or four years to reach trial.  I have come to realize fighting bad associations one lawsuit at a time is not working -- for anyone.

My New Years' resolution is to work for the associations and educate them on the most efficient ways to collect assessments and enforce the declarations.  My goal is to have associations I represent to be self-sufficient and not have to call me frequently and incur high legal bills.  Yes, I'm advocating for my clients to pay me less.  Hopefully I will have more clients and be able to earn a decent living -- not an extravagant living, just a decent living.  How do I plan to do that?  By showing associations that just because they can legally do something doesn't mean that's the most efficient way.  Let's face it -- often associations have the legal power to take certain actions and those actions end up costing the association quite a bit in legal expenses.  Who is it recommending they engage in this conduct?  The very person who will profit from litigation -- the association attorney.  I often wonder who's best interest is being looked after -- the association's or the association attorney's.  

My methods work and I know they work.  I have represented a handful of associations for the past few years and I hardly hear from them.  We had a good bit of work in the beginning, but now they are self-sufficient.  They know the key to collecting assessments is to educate the homeowner.  Most homeowners faced with financial hardships don't realize that the association's assessments, which is usually the smallest bill they have, carries the greatest power.  The association can foreclose no matter how small the amount past due and can foreclose quickly because it doesn't face any of the problems the banks face with mortgage foreclosures.  The homeowners often don't realize financial hardship is not a defense to not paying assessments and the association actually has a duty to aggressively collect those assessments from everyone. Providing this information with an offer to catch up assessments through a payment plan has been a very successful strategy for my associations.  The association is usually viewed favorably in this strategy. Surprisingly a number of homeowners appreciate the association working with them to resolve the problem rather than sending the nasty notices stating the association will lien and foreclose and own their home.

Community living does not have to be a nightmare.  The board of directors have a choice in how they handle disputes.  It doesn't have to end in a civil war.

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