Lew Sichelman

An estimated 74 million home and condominium owners now live in properties governed by associations of their fellow residents. And to hear the Community Associations Institute tell it, the vast majority are pleased with how their boards run the show. 

But hold on a minute. Another survey, this one from HomeAdvisor, has found that 4 out of every 5 folks living with an association would just as soon live elsewhere. And even more say the rules and regulations are restrictive, if not downright oppressive. 

The striking differences between the two studies should stand as a stern warning to anyone thinking about buying a place run by a small, elected fraction of their fellow owners. If you don’t mind living under the potentially heavy hand of board members, fine. But if you value your freedom, perhaps you should look elsewhere. 

Associations Increasingly Popular 

Unfortunately, that latter choice is becoming more difficult every year, especially in the new-home market. In 2020, the last year for which data is available, more than 657,000 houses were started in places governed by a community association, according to the Census Bureau. That’s up from 545,000 in 2019. And the number was undoubtedly higher last year. 

There are good reasons to reside in a place where there are rules. For one thing, rules help maintain property values. With a homeowners association in place, for example, you’re not going to live next door to someone who puts his car up on cinder blocks in the front yard, or who parks her 40-foot RV in the driveway. 

Associations also make sure any common areas and amenities are clean and maintained, arrange for trash pickup, and ensure that residents keep their grass mowed and their shrubs pruned. 

Of course, residents fund all this by paying monthly or quarterly dues to the association. Membership is not optional. You live there, you pay. 

But, as reported here and elsewhere, the restrictions and rules can be legendary – and ridiculous. Some say you can’t park a work vehicle in your driveway. Pets’ feet are not allowed to touch the ground in common areas. No flagpoles allowed. Political signs are verboten. This kind of shrub is permitted, but not that kind. 

All this is fine for most people, the CAI study found. In its 2020 survey of 1,500 residents, about 70 percent rated their overall experience of living in a community association as “good” or “very good,” and about 19 percent rated it as “neutral.” 

Not so with the HomeAdvisor study. Of the 1,000 folks polled, a third said their association had caused them “regular stress,” and 4 out of 5 admitted they’d rather live elsewhere. 

Sometimes, It’s Personal 

To be sure, just one run-in with an HOA can be enough to sour a resident’s happiness – like the guy who told HomeAdvisor that his situation was “a nightmare.” Many of his fellow owners were “in arrears with their dues,” and the board president “stole money and mismanaged the insurance and vendors.” 

For the most part, though, things run well in an association-governed community, and most folks are either pleased or uninterested. Unfortunately, some association boards are, shall we say, a bit overzealous in their quest to keep their communities beautiful and running smoothly. And some board members can overstep their bounds. 

One of the chief complaints unearthed by HomeAdvisor is that nearly 3 out of 4 owners are frustrated by a board member or two. Said one homeowner: “The people on the board are the worst power-hungry types.” 

There’s really nothing residents can do about that, save for electing others to replace the offending individuals. But there’s a lot you can do in deciding whether or not this is the place for you and your family. 

What to Watch Out For 

One step you can take is to obtain a copy of the association rules and read them before buying the place. Another is to speak directly with a few of your prospective neighbors to learn of their experiences. Consider HomeAdvisor’s findings as a backdrop to your discussions: 

Eight in 10 respondents griped about dues, saying they had to pay too much. In the CAI survey, however, 62 percent of respondents reported paying “just the right amount.” 

It should be noted that rather than being static, dues often rise, sometimes annually – largely because the cost of running the community goes up apace. Owners are also susceptible to special assessments approved by their boards to pay for big-ticket items deemed of immediate importance. 

The vast majority of HomeAdvisor’s respondents also said the rules are too restrictive, especially when it comes to lawn and holiday decorations. They also don’t take well to architectural rules that govern exterior paint colors and additions, among other things, and they find limits on the size and number of pets to be particularly appalling. 

And not surprisingly, offended owners are less than pleased when they are flagged for violating the rules. Two-thirds said the notices were unfair. Most received warnings. But a third were fined – too much, as you might imagine. Fines for minor infractions, like a stray bicycle left on the front porch, were a major issue. 

Lastly, nosy neighbors constitute another gripe. The tattletales who reported minor rule infractions were called “invasive.” 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

Survey Unpacks HOA Gripes

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 4 min