The relationship between the condo owner and the homeowners' association (HOA) or condo board is a unique one. While the owner struggles to make ends meet and afford his high-priced living space, the board members loom overhead in their ivory towers, with their fancy suits and top hats, puffing cigars and drinking 75-year-old scotch while making the rules to which the owners must adhere.
Okay, so perhaps that's an exaggeration, but it signifies how many condo owners feel - especially when the day-to-day needs of the owner conflict with the board's regulations.
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Struggle of the Underdog
Many condo owners regularly air grievances about their governing boards, and how they leave little (if any) room for customization of the living space. Owners are often not permitted to make seemingly minute changes, like painting a wall, but are left with unexpected bills for electrical, plumbing or maintenance costs.
Even the smallest dispute can quickly elevate, resulting in damaged reputation of the condo owner in the eyes of the condo board, breach of contract and even court settlements. Generally, HOAs hold the power in court cases. After all - they're the ones that make the rules and have the ability to change them at any time. (For more, check out Condo Complications: The Issues Behind Ownership.)
Reading Is Fundamental
Condo boards operate independently from each other. As such, contracts and leases, proposals, maintenance requests and the like are going to vary from building to building. This independence works in the board's favor, as stipulations in lease agreements are (for the most part) not overseen by municipal or state governments, as long as they comply with legal standards. As such, it's in an owner's best interests to become completely familiar with the details of the lease agreement. Understanding even the smallest details can benefit the owner if and when a disagreement arises, and lack (or neglect) of the details can cause immeasurable hassles.
Such was the case for Jeffrey DeMarco, who planted roses on his four-acre property that weren't in line with HOA allowance. At the end of the court case that evolved from the dispute, DeMarco was ordered to pay the HOA's legal fees, approximately $70,000, and lost his house to the bank.
While understanding what is and is not allowed on a specific property is important, proposing positive changes to the condo board or HOA in an action-oriented, non-threatening manner is just as important. Intimidating with lawsuits and refusal to act in accordance with existing rules, as Mr. DeMarco learned, rarely ends to a condo owner's benefit.
Become a Recognizable Face
Let's face facts - HOAs work against the freedoms of the average condo owner. As mentioned in the example above, a small dispute can quickly turn into a life-changing altercation. Sometimes the path of least resistance is to simply join the flock. Don't plant those flowers there, no satellite dishes are allowed and selling that is frowned upon. A fortunate side effect of this pack mentality is that it eventually attracts a valuable reputation of being a "good" owner - and as such, allows you a louder voice.
The boards are not there solely to refuse the requests of the owners, but to maintain the integrity of the building, in line with its mission and community statements. Many times, however, condo owners are faced with roadblocks in which negotiation with the governing condo board is the most appealing option. It's at these times when having a recognizable face will be detrimental.
Attending board meetings that are open to all condo owners, and contributing positively, is a calculated method of promoting change to the board's rules. When the board is organizing a community event, fundraiser or awareness campaign, volunteers will be needed. Make yourself known by being the first to sign up. Volunteer for any initiatives that arise, and make positive suggestions to improve the condo's reputation and appeal within the community, be it by organizing community garage sales or suggesting ways to make the building more wheelchair accessible.
And remember: just because you're not on the board doesn't mean you can't influence it. (Learn more in 9 Things You Need To Know About Homeowners' Associations.)
Of course, most condo owners only approach their governing boards when issues requiring immediate attention arise - when a pipe bursts or when a leak in the ceiling appears. In these situations, there isn't enough time to plan a kids' movie night in the group room in order to gain face time.
And many times, these issues arise in a gray area, in which neither the owner nor the board are fully at fault. Proceedings and hearings to determine financial responsibility can go on for months - even years. In these cases, condo boards should be seen and treated as any other organization would be. If the case drags on, it's best to consult a lawyer who specializes in condominium litigation. It may not win you any points in your efforts to be on the board's good side, but it could save you thousands in repair bills.
Condominium lawyers operate on both sides of a disagreement - for both the condo owner and the board - so hiring an experienced attorney is important. After all, the board's not likely to skimp in this area, and the owner should be as prepared as possible. (Legal fees have never been more expensive. Here are some ways for you to save on legal fees while still getting reliable advice in 5 Free Or Low-Cost Legal Services.)
The Joys of Condo Ownership
New condo owners are usually not considered for the condo board, as many HOAs have residency requirements of one, two or even five years before owners are even eligible for nomination. And even then, only those with a required skill set will be considered. In those years, condo owners will undoubtedly see many things that could be changed, and some that require immediate attention. So when the fat cats are busy creating secret handshakes and sacrificing goats "for the greater good," condo owners should be taking advantages of all opportunities in order to position themselves for the inevitable issues that will arise.
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