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Standing up to your homeowner's association board

Many homeowners moving into a townhouse development for the first time are surprise to learn that many things they used to take for granted in their single-family home on the old cul-du-sac are now restricted by covenants of the homeowner's association (HOA).

Buyers are required to receive a copy of the rules and policies of their homeowner association at closing, but rarely do they understand the jargon and legalese, nor do they understand the extent an HOA its board will often go to impose and enforce covenants. Unfortunately, many homeowners don't learn about their HOA until they receive notice that they have broken some vague rule. When trying to fight back, many quickly discover they are engaging with one or more power hungry, overzealous board members, who may have lived in the development for decades.

Architectural violations are at the top of the list

One of the most common things homeowners get cited for is architectural design violations. Many California homeowners have been fined for planting too many flowers, removing an unsightly tree stump, hanging Christmas lights or setting up a low rabbit fence around their tulip approved tulip garden. In addition to making the homeowner remove the unapproved structure, fines may also be imposed. There have even been several cases in California in which liens have been placed against the property, resulting in the eventual loss of the home.

Pay the fines and argue later

The worst thing a homeowner can do is refuse to pay the fines related to the citations. There have been many homeowners who may have had strong and valid appeals, but lost their battles in court because they refused to pay the fines. Homeowners who believe they are being targeted by their homeowner's association should seek the assistance of legal counsel. Once a homeowner has been targeted by their homeowner's association, it is unlikely that it will end without legal intervention.

Information is hard to come by

Although HOAs are supposed to maintain transparency with its members, it is often not the case. It should be emphasized that budgets and changes made to HOA covenants should be fully disclosed and made available to every homeowner. Members who request information regarding updated changes, policies or supporting documentation to back the charges levied against them are often ignored. Elected board members of most HOAs tend to keep the board business private, using any means necessary to keep it that way, erroneously claiming that board business is confidential.

Homeowners seeking information about a possible citation should first request the information in writing. If the board ignores the letter or denies the request, the homeowners' next step should be to request written communication from the association's attorney, asking why the information can't be disclosed. If these measures have been exhausted and the HOA board has refused to comply, securing legal council is the next best step.

Overlooked and voiceless

Many homeowners make the mistake of thinking they can get their issues resolved by airing their complaints at the monthly HOA meeting. More often than not, the personal complaints become disruptive and take over the agenda, leading to frustration among the board and other members who chose to attend for a variety of reasons. It is only after this experience that homeowners begin to realize just how little power and control they actually have.

Many homeowners believe that changes made to bylaws have to be approved by the majority of the homeowners through a formal voting process. While that is mostly correct, there is a caveat: Boards may ignore the process and change their house rules. House rules can be rewritten without the knowledge of the homeowners in an association, and they are legally binding.

Dealing with an association can be confusing and complicated. There are significant risks involved when attempting to resolve disputes without the assistance of a knowledgeable lawyer. Right or wrong, many board members believe they have the authority to operate in any manner they see fit, as long as they can justify it "in the good of the community" and that is where the problem often comes up.

You don't have to fight them alone

Any homeowner who is thinking of opposing any regulation or citation levied against them should consult an attorney who is experienced and who has won these types of cases. A home is an investment and no homeowner should leave anything to chance when facing a battle with their homeowner's association.

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