- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

When it came to home-related matters, it used to be that owners were limited only by their wallets and imaginations. But with the number of association-governed communities at an all-time high, boards and committees increasingly have the final word on everything from home exteriors to community recreation.

Almost four out of five new home developments nationwide since 2000 have a homeowners association (HOA), according to the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, which also includes condominium associations and cooperatives in its membership and its statistics (www.caionline.org).

As soon as they purchase their home, residents are required to become HOA members and pay assessments that are set and collected by the association.

Not only are HOAs growing, but they also are becoming more powerful and are delivering services that once were left up to the local governments.

Reaction to HOAs is mixed.

“Some people like having homeowners associations, and other people can’t stand them,” says Leonard Wallace of Realty One in Greenbelt. Mr. Wallace adds that one’s opinion on HOAs depends on the particular association. Each one is different.

HOAs are generally governed by a board of elected volunteer homeowners who are responsible for running the neighborhood operations and determining how the home’s exterior looks in order to promote visual appeal and consistency.

Kingstowne is a planned community in Fairfax County with 6,000 units, including condominiums, town homes and single-family homes. Kathleen Snyder is president of the Kingstowne Residential Owners Association and has lived in an association-run community for 25 years.

“There are lots of advantages to living in an HOA,” Ms. Snyder says. “People buy into them because they like the way the neighborhoods look, with all of the bells and whistles.”

Ms. Snyder says that Kingstowne is a large community that includes 500 acres of open land, three community centers with pools, and 22 miles of hiking and biking trails.

“The reality is that as neighborhoods age, HOAs become more important,” Ms. Snyder says.

If needed, HOAs remind neighbors to mow their lawns, paint shutters and doors before they peel, and repair decks or fences.

“Communities with HOAs definitely provide some degree of protection against neighborhood degradation and deterioration, such as cars on cinder blocks, dilapidated homes or yards that are not maintained,” says Frank Rathbun of the CAI.

“While a few may chafe at rules and restrictions that may run counter to their own preferences, the rules in association-governed communities are in place to preserve the nature of the communities, protect property values and meet the established expectation of residents,” Mr. Rathbun says.

Mr. Wallace says it’s give-and-take with HOAs.

“You have to give up some rights for the good of the community,” he says. However, the giving up of rights is exactly what causes conflict between some people and their HOAs.

Under most HOA rules, any changes to the exterior of your home, no matter how small, must be carefully planned and approved by an architectural review committee.

Decks, fences, additions, paint colors, mailboxes and storm doors are among the items that must be consistent with the neighborhood covenants. Even clotheslines can be restricted — and are banned under some HOA rules.

HOAs are advocates for homeowners, but the way they are perceived can give them a bad name, according to Peg Scherbarth of ZipRealty Inc. in Washington, who says that all HOAs have three things — covenants, conditions and restrictions. These are often referred to as CC&Rs.;

“Most of the calls we get from owners are about neighbors not mowing the lawn or painting the shutters,” Ms. Snyder says. “One out of thousands of people wants to do what we don’t allow, but it only takes one person who has a problem to cost everybody, especially with smaller HOAs that don’t have as much money to spend on legal fees.”

Says Leatrice Bullis of RE/MAX in Bowie: “Some people may become frustrated when they want to modify their property and systems are not in place to quickly approve these requests. This may increase the number of violations against the rules and regulations.”

Community-association living isn’t for everyone. Ms. Snyder says that although she believes people in this country should be able to do what they want, people who want to live in their homes without any rules probably shouldn’t move into an HOA community.

Before buying into a neighborhood with an HOA, buyers should do their homework. According to the CAI, issues often arise because of false expectations, misinformation and misunderstanding.

Ms. Snyder says that though all buyers are given HOA documents before the purchase of their home, most people don’t bother to read them carefully.

“Some people may move in afterward and say, ‘Now where do I park my six cars?’ ” Ms. Snyder says.

Ms. Bullis says it’s always wise for the buyers to review the resale package for an association before going to settlement to prevent unwanted surprises.

Real estate agents say the best way to find out if your prospective HOA is effective is to drive around and look at the grounds and common areas to see if they’re being cared for, make sure there aren’t many homes with tall grass or in need of repair, and talk with the neighbors.

“Current residents are very forthcoming about their HOAs,” Ms. Scherbarth says. “Find out how open the board’s activities are to the homeowners, ask about financial expenses and reserves funds, whether or not there are a lot of lawsuits.”

Ms. Scherbarth says she’s noticed a difference between HOAs of single-family-home neighborhoods and those of town homes and condominiums because attached housing seems to have more restrictions.

Because HOAs are made up primarily of volunteers, real estate agents and HOA insiders say the associations work best when people volunteer with no personal agenda.

“If the board isn’t really tuned in to the greater good, it becomes a benign dictatorship. Some people will spend the HOA’s money to have trees planted behind their property,” Ms. Snyder says.

Ms. Bullis agrees. She says the associations are only as effective as those who run them. Poor leadership is a problem for some HOA residents, especially when the rules aren’t enforced.

“Owners who have a strong sense of pride of ownership become frustrated when neighbors lacking the same sentiments present their eyesore to passers-by,” Ms. Bullis says.

Mr. Wallace says you can’t put a dollar value on HOAs. Homes in HOA communities may sell fast because of the look of the neighborhood and the amenities offered.

“Homes in communities with active and professionally managed homeowners associations tend to maintain their curb appeal and desirability,” Ms. Bullis says.

Ms. Scherbart agrees and says properly maintained common areas and neighborhood community centers are well-perceived amenities, especially in the Washington area.

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