By Jonathan Briggs
A gardening violation. That's what landed Jeffrey DeMarco in hot water with his Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., homeowners association a few years ago: He planted too many roses on his four-acre property. Peeved, the association fined him monthly and sat back as the bills mounted. Then it placed a lien on his property and threatened to foreclose, according to DeMarco.
Like corporate boards, which have a fiduciary responsibility to make disclosures to shareholders, a homeowners association board is supposed to be upfront with its members. But all too often, boards play things close to the vest. "The board will say everything is confidential and they can't tell you anything," says Willowdean Vance, president of the American Homeowner Association, a consumer group based in Lake Forest, Calif. "They're just on a power trip and it's absolutely deceitful."
Board members will tell you that the last thing they want is to go to court. But it happens all the time. Experts estimate that in California, 75% of the homeowners associations are embroiled in a legal tangle of some kind. Chicago attorney Mark Pearlstein, who represents associations, figures that 60% of all condo boards and homeowners associations in Illinois are involved in some kind of legal suit.
Besides being expensive, lawsuits often mean that you won't be able to sell your home when the time comes to move. "Would you want to go out and buy a property that was in the middle of a lawsuit?" asks Oliver Burford, executive director of the Executive Council of Homeowners, a trade group for California associations. "I wouldn't."
Every association has a reserve fund. It's like a savings account, and it's meant to be tapped when things go wrong or the property falls into disrepair. But often these funds are in terrible shape themselves.
By law, a majority of the homeowners in an association have to approve any change in the bylaws. But many boards sidestep this by simply changing their house rules, which are as binding as bylaws but can usually be rewritten without asking all the homeowners. "Even if you were to be given the rules today, they're probably already out of date because [boards are] constantly making changes to the rules at whim," says Elizabeth McMahon, a co-founder of the American Homeowners' Resource Center, a San Juan Capistrano, Calif., consumer group. "And they couldn't care less if you don't like them."
Monthly meetings are open to all homeowners. At least in theory. "A lot of times, however, meetings are moved at the last minute to limit the questions from homeowners or to keep information from them," says Willowdean Vance, president of the American Homeowner Association, a consumer group based in Lake Forest, Calif., which has fielded a number of complaints from homeowners who were shut out of meetings.
Most board members are volunteers, and they generally get their training on the job. Sometimes their inexperience means they bungle the bookkeeping, resulting in higher fees or assessments. Sometimes they fail to do their homework on outside contractors, meaning that you get shoddy workmanship in your common areas. And sometimes, as Mary Lindsey knows all too well, they can cause much bigger problems.
Being on the board is a thankless job, board members will tell you. That's probably true much of the time. But strictly speaking, it's not always so. The thanks they often get may surprise you.
In many associations being hard-nosed about the rules is practically the board's raison d'etre. "Some of these board members have nothing better to do. So instead of taking care of the property, they censor people's lifestyles," says Vicki Satern of Common Ownership Alliance. She needn't tell Allen Warshaw. To ward off a neighbor who had attacked him with a log, he asked his Rockville, Md., board to bend the rules. He wanted a six-foot fence, two feet taller than allowed. When the application was denied, he sued -- and lost. Warshaw wound up with the association's bills, too. The total: $23,000 in legal fees, court costs and interest.
.......To be continued