- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

You’ve heard the horror stories: The elderly woman forced to move from her condo because she couldn’t carry her cocker spaniel across the common-room floor, the Virginia couple fined because they posted a “Happy Birthday Jesus” sign on their front lawn shortly after Thanksgiving, the California man called on the carpet for planting too many roses. There’s even an old “X-Files” episode that has the president of a homeowners association conjuring up a Tibetan monster to kill residents who broke the rules.

Before you reach for your light saber, though, consider this: Homeowners associations (HOAs) often can be a force for good, cleaning up snow, maintaining the pool and ensuring that the neighborhood looks its best when potential buyers come to call.

“That’s the power of the homeowners association,” says Prabhjit Singh, owner of D.C.-based Real Estate Empower, which offers continuing-education and real estate classes for consumers. “During the big snow last year, my HOA had plows coming through right away. And they get the best people to do the work.”

More than 60 million Americans live in communities governed by homeowners associations or similar entities, up from just 10,000 in 1970. But understanding how HOAs work can be tricky, especially for new homebuyers looking for just the right neighborhood.

So what exactly is an HOA?

There are all types of homeowners associations, spanning a wide range of properties and settings from low-cost condominiums to retirement villages to exclusive and expensive gated communities.

Whatever the type, all homeowners in these communities automatically become members of - and pay assessments to - the community, condo or homeowners association.

Monthly association dues are figured into determining loan eligibility, so it’s important to find out what these are when putting together financing.

Depending on the neighborhood, dues cover a wide range of amenities and services, from snow removal and hedge trimming to maintaining a pool, clubhouse or even a golf course. The associations work to ensure architectural consistency, regulating such choices as paint color and shingle style to ensure that the quality of the neighborhood -and the home prices - remain high.

Despite the horror stories, most homeowners seem to be fairly satisfied with their associations, according to a December 2009 poll commissioned by the Community Associations Institute (CAI) and conducted by Zogby International.

“In reality, most people who live in community associations don’t have negative views,” says Frank Rathbun, CAI spokesman. “We do the survey every other year, and for the past several, between 80 [percent] and 90 percent say they are neutral or satisfied. Beyond that, the poll showed that many homeowners valued the return they received on their HOA fees and thought HOA rules helped to protect and enhance property values.”

Residents serve on HOA boards in a volunteer capacity and work to enforce community rules, ensure financial stability and organize maintenance and capital improvements.

Things don’t always go smoothly, however, which is one reason the stories of homeowners forced to pay high fines or leave their homes make their way to the airwaves.

“Board members are often reluctant volunteers,” says Jeanne Ketley, president of the Maryland Homeowners Association, which seeks to encourage laws and practices more favorable to homeowners living in covenanted communities. “Many times they have no background in HOA law or condo law, and they rely on managers and associated attorneys, who can lead people astray.”

It’s not always easy to remove a board or change the bylaws once they are in place.

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