Attorney Trey Wilson - RL Wilson Law

07 January 2009

Fines, lawyer fees lead to HOA power battles -- WFAA TV in Dallas

PLANO - Solar Lights, basketball hoops and shingles made of aluminum have all added up to fines, and in some cases liens, after some homeowners associations defined them as violations of their rules.

In Texas, HOAs possess the ultimate weapon, the ability to take one's home. However, some say that's too much control.

For more than 59 million Americans in 300,000 communities, HOAs regulate everything from the color of their homes to when they can leave their garage doors open.

"You can't win," said Sandy Ramirez, a Frisco homeowner. "HOAs will always win."
Mrs. Ramirez shot home video while a giant crane slowly lifted a luxury playhouse from her backyard. The Ramirez family paid $15,000 at a charity auction for the 6,000-pound, ten-feet-tall playhouse. Twenty-four hours after it was delivered, the Heritage Lakes Homeowners Association sent the family a threatening letter that demanded the playhouse be gone in 30 days or the Ramirez family would be fined $100 a day.

"Can you imagine trying to explain to an eight-month-old and a six-year-old that one day they're playing and enjoying their playhouse and the next day their playhouse is gone?" Mrs. Ramirez said. The family unsuccessfully appealed to the HOA. In addition to the denial, they were also billed for their appeal. "They charged me for the lawyer," Mrs. Ramirez said. "They put it on my bill - their use of the lawyer and the mediator."

The Ramirez family aren't the only North Texans who have battled with their neighborhood HOAs.

While green may not suit everyone's taste, Thieu Nguyen said it was his family's color of choice for cultural and sentimental reasons. "Green is the most natural color," he said. "Green, grass is green. Trees are green. It's the most natural color."

After a fence at his Plano home was painted green, the neighborhood's HOA quickly sent his family a letter asking them to repaint. The HOA only allows earth colors or stains. However, Nguyen said he thought green was an earth color and refused to repaint. "If I don't fight, then no one will," he said. "So, I have to fight even though I'm in a wheelchair and I struggle a lot to fight with them."

The neighborhood battle over Nguyen's fence started six years ago. The HOA sued him, levying fines and charging attorney fees that now total $1,800. The association is threatening to place a lien on Nyugen's house. The Vietnamese immigrant said the HOA's tactics remind him of his former homeland. "That's just like a communist country," he said. "They won't threaten you or anything. One day they just come in your house and kick you out."

Dallas based SBB Management oversees more than 150 North Texas HOAs. While the company's owner, Fred Shapiro, said HOAs are not perfect, he said they do serve an important purpose. He said their rules, restrictions and covenants are designed to, above all else, maintain property values.

"No one really wants to be heavy-handed, but sometimes people draw a line in the sand and it just doesn't work out that everyone's happy," he said.

Shapiro said while there are problems with HOAs, the vast majority work well and solve most of their problems with homeowners through boards, committees and hearings without fines, liens or court battles. "The developers wouldn't build them if the homeowners didn't want them," he said.

Thirteen years ago, Texas lawmakers created property code 204, which allows HOAs to be forced on homeowners without their consent, even if they have lived in their homes for decades. It also allows associations to pass rules that bind homeowners.

"Judges don't always make the right decisions," said Dr. Robert Bland, University of North Texas public administration professor. "Juries don't always make the right decisions, but that's our imperfect process of governing ourselves." Bland said with the authority given to HOAs in Texas, abuse of power can happen. But he also said some homeowners can be part of the problem when they do not know what restrictions may exist against their property. "An HOA becomes powerful or exercises undue power as a result of citizens becoming somewhat lax," he said.

Organizations pushing for HOA reform are fighting to limit HOAs powers. They want to eliminate the threat of foreclosure and restore homeowner control of their own property. "You have freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the HOA has violated that," he said.

Texas law allows HOAs to foreclose on homes only when fees are unpaid, which reportedly seldom happens.


Trey Wilson --Named By Scene in SA Magazine As One of San Antonio's Best Real Estate Litigation Attorneys -- September 2008 -- As voted on by peers