Read your documents and get involved: Tips for your first homeowners association
How to make sure you don't run afoul of your neighborhood board.
With condominiums and gated neighborhoods on the rise , more and more of Rochester’s residents will eventually find themselves moving into a property with a homeowners association.
The premise is simple: Homeowners agree to pay fees and abide by rules in order to maintain a cohesive atmosphere in the neighborhood. Many HOAs use the member fees to perform lawn maintenance and outdoor tasks for the whole community. Some of the fees also go into a reserve fund, which can be used for larger repairs, like roofs and siding. A board of members is elected from among the residents to make decisions about maintenance, finances, and adjudicate when other members want to make visible changes to their homes.
Newcomers to HOAs may find the legalese intimidating — so we talked to the people who get HOAs started in Rochester for some guidelines.
Read the documents. Tom Hill, of Matik Management, said buyers have 10 days during a sale to review the ruling documents of their HOA (declaration, bylaws, and rules and regulations). These documents will let homeowners know how much their monthly fees will cost (usually in the hundreds of dollars), how the board is elected, and how restrictive the rules are about their homes-to-be (uniformity of design, color and material).
HOA documents aren’t fun to read, but it’s important to look them over and ask for clarification if needed before the sale goes through. Plenty of buyers look at a property and plan to make external changes, then skip reading their HOA documents during the sale, Hill said, causing problems down the line.
“They go, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that,' then they look at the HOA and realize there’s steps to that and they may not be able to complete that change,” he said.
The documents will also help with leveling expectations between homeowners, board members, and the HOA at large -- a crucial step, Jo Ellen Heers-Risen, the secretary/treasurer of Willow Point Townhome Association, said.
Expect big changes. Mike Paradise, president of Bigelow Homes, has shepherded several new properties through the creation of an HOA.
“Living in an HOA is a different way of life,” he said.
While some homeowners might seek out such a community so they can travel without worrying about snow removal and maintenance in the winter, plenty of young people have also looked into planned developments to avoid chores such as lawn mowing as they buy their first property, he said.
With that said, keep expectations reasonable. Those who enter an HOA because of built-in outdoor care sometimes complain when their lawn isn’t mowed immediately or snow “isn’t gone 10 minutes after the snow stops,” Paradise said. “Be patient. … A lot of these companies that take care of snow and lawn for associations have multiple clients. It can take them a while to get around.”
Don’t plan on changes without approval. The rules and regulations for each community are HOA-specific and property-specific, so buyers can’t assume that one planned development’s guidelines will apply to all the homes they’re considering, Hill added. However, the “boilerplate language” tends to be that “any change to the exterior of a unit, or any change that would affect your neighbor, has to be approved.”
That doesn’t just include paint or re-landscaping, Hill said. A resident who wants to get cable TV may need approval for a satellite dish. A fireplace would require a visible chimney.
Most HOAs have a board of directors or an architectural control committee (ACC) made up of residents, who approve any applications for alteration. Those residents will check the form for alteration against the community’s rules and regulation, and get back with a confirmation or denial.
Maintain your home. Your average gated community has rows and rows of manicured landscapes and perfectly painted doors — but some of that responsibility does come back to the residents.
“One common misconception is, ‘I’m buying a property in an HOA, I’ll pay my dues, so everything’s taken care of,’ ” Hill said. “That’s not quite true.”
The communities have a built-in way to handle “bad neighbors” and those who don’t maintain their properties.
“If someone is not keeping up on a property … the HOA can actually have repairs made, then assess the costs back to that owner,” Hill said.
Get involved. One big benefit of living in an HOA is the “throwback to that community feeling,” Hill said. “I’m 41, I remember growing up in the '80s and playing in my neighborhood, and we all knew each other. You don’t always find that now.”
Hill, who manages more than a thousand units, generally sees a reluctance to participate in HOA leadership or attend board meetings. The board and any committees give direction to the management companies — not the other way around. However, it does certainly take time and effort to become a leader.
Paradise said while some residents fear “neighborhood politics,” lack of volunteers creates problems in HOAs. Hill recommends that newcomers to HOAs start small.
“Get to know your board, get to know your neighbors,” he said. “Try to volunteer in some aspect. It’s important to know what’s going on.”
And finally -- "Always remember you are a part of a community, so be a part of the solution, not the problem," Heers-Risen said.