Attorney Trey Wilson - RL Wilson Law

08 January 2009

Homeowners Associations: The final authority? from the San Antonio Express News

Like many homeowners, Charles Shirley viewed his home as his kingdom: A place where he could rule over the home's colors, design and landscaping as he chose.
The only problem was that some of his neighbors felt the same way. Without a homeowners association, neighbors parked cars on their lawns. One homeowner ran a mechanic shop out of his home garage.

So when Shirley decided to build a new home near Canyon Lake five years ago, he was glad that the Estate of Oak Shores had strict limitations on the height of each building and how long neighbors could leave their boats sitting outdoors.

"We have height restrictions; and in some cases each lot has different restrictions, so as not to block the total view of each house above them to maximize the value of each lot," said Shirley, who helps enforce the Estate of Oak Shores' rules as part of its architectural control committee. "It was a selling point. It protects the property values of what you are investing in."

In many communities, homeowners or condominium associations have final authority in most aesthetic matters — with the ability to sue a property owner, assess penalty fees and even foreclose on a property if the fees aren't paid — because buyers agree to it when they purchase the land or home in the subdivision.

So homeowners associations, called HOAs, are not for the owner who wants total control over when the trash can is placed on the curb or whether to convert the garage into an apartment for the in-laws. Home buyers should weigh the tradeoffs when deciding to buy or to build in a community governed by an association.

HOAs began as an option that homeowners could select to join, like any other social group.But in the 1960s, cities and counties began encouraging developers to set up mandatory HOAs that required all homeowners to participate.

Now, before starting construction, most developers set up a nonprofit organization for the HOA with the Texas secretary of sate and then write all governing rules and restrictions. This includes the HOA's duties and the homeowners' responsibilities, and these are kept in a public document called the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, or DCC&Rs, which is filed with the county clerk's office. Homeowners can challenge those by submitting requests for changes to an association's architectural control committee or the HOA board. But they must abide by their decisions.

Associations have taken leadership on environmental issues such as smoking and conservation. It is increasingly common for associations that govern condominiums to ban smoking even inside individual units to limit recycling of smoke-filled air through the common air filtration system, said Mark Nash, a real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home." Nash surveys agents nationwide on the hottest buyer trends each year.

In one subdivision along Bulverde Road, homeowners pay an extra $15 dollars per month for a conservation preserve and "conservation association" that must permanently protect the natural habitat in an area near their homes, according to Andy Hill, CEO of Spectrum Association Management, a company that manages 140 HOAs in Texas.

But the associations also provide amenities (such as the mini-waterpark with a "lazy river" at Cibolo Canyons) that most homeowners could not afford individually.

So, many new-home buyers expect to be governed by an HOA, agents say. "It's an expected situation that you will have that extra set of dues going out every so often," said Kara Sagebiel, an agent at Coldwell Banker D'Ann Harper Realtors.

But an HOA's amenities come with a price. Condo fees tend to run at least $150 each month. Homeowners association dues range from around $20 to $70 a month, depending on the types of amenities and size of the community, Hill said. That's partly because HOAs tend to buy insurance to protect themselves in case of accidents or lawsuits, and pools are expensive to insure. Plus, gated communities also must maintain roads and streetlights in their communities.

Dues can fluctuate, too. In Summerfield near Northwest Military Highway and Wurzbach Parkway, the HOA just voted to increase dues from $210 per quarter to $231 per quarter to enclose the walking trails that border a new subdivision and public park. The playground equipment was vandalized recently.

"We're seeing an increase in property crime in this part of the city. And although we are a gated community, I just sensed that more safety on the street would be helpful," said Bill Thomas, board president and a five-year Summerfield resident.

The Summerfield HOA also wanted to stay on track with saving to repave the streets that connect the community's 430 homes in seven years. Workers paint a fence in the Summerfield subdivision. The homeowners association maintains common areas as well as inspects properties to ensure rules are followed.

Homeowners also must abide by the covenants and restrictions in mandatory associations — or face legal action. Many HOAs issue a handful of written notices asking a homeowner to fix a violation or to pay dues within 10 days if they have fallen behind. If nothing happens, then the HOA issues a final notice, giving the homeowner 30 days to respond, before turning the issue over to an attorney.
If the homeowner owes unpaid dues, then the HOA can file a lawsuit to collect. If the homeowner ignores a judge's order to pay the dues, then the HOA can start foreclosure proceedings.

But most HOA boards are loath to foreclose, said Hill of Spectrum Association Management. "They are not trying to be mean or rude," he said. "They are just trying to maintain the community. Most board members are good people and have a genuine interest in creating a good sense of community."

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