How to keep an HOA from turning dream house into nightmare

Mike and Georgia had looked for six months before they found their perfect townhome. Like many buyers, they were more worried about the sellers accepting their offer than they were about investigating the Homeowners Association (HOA). Turns out, the HOA almost ruined the deal. Because the HOA had let their FHA approval lapse, Mike and Georgia were not able to go with an FHA loan. When they switched to a conventional loan, they had to drain their savings in order to qualify for the higher debt-to-income ratios. At this point, they took a more careful look at the HOA’s meeting notes and were alarmed to read that roads would soon need major investments and that HOA fees had been rising higher and faster than local rents for the past five years. The entire scenario was a nightmare, costing Mike extra time and money—and he now gets to pay the association a pretty penny every month for the hassle.

HOAs aren’t usually top of mind when you’re looking to buy a home. In fact, HOAs can be completely overlooked until you learn that your dream house comes with one.

If you’ve carefully figured out just what you can afford to spend every month on a mortgage and then get hit with the added expense of an HOA, you may find your perfect home suddenly out of reach. But all the HOA news isn’t bad. Sometimes the benefits of an association can make homeownership more manageable—especially if you’re used to apartment or condo living.

Whether an HOA is part of your home shopping wish list or not, here’s everything you need to know to make a smart decision when it comes to joining an HOA.

What is an HOA and why do they exist?

One Salt Lake buyer, Kip. A., shared this insight, “HOAs are meant to ensure that a community maintains a good standard of upkeep and generally do a good job at that. Some HOAs might include lawn care, snow removal, and community amenities such as a clubhouse or pool.”

Homeowner associations are legal entities that exist to govern a planned community like a subdivision or apartment complex. HOAs ensure that certain rules and regulations (like what color you can paint your front door) are followed, and usually take responsibility for maintaining common areas like parking and sidewalks. An HOA will typically take care of at least some of the landscaping and exterior home maintenance.

As Kip noted, they can also provide community amenities like a pool, fitness center, and park areas. In some instances, HOAs provide road and waste management to areas that are outside city service areas. HOAs are funded by membership fees that are required to live on the property. Fees can range from $75 to more than $400 per month, depending on the neighborhood and the services provided.

Things to watch out for when it comes to an HOA

If you fall in love with a home that has an HOA, this is your must-do list before putting in an offer.

  • Dig into the fees: Find out what the current fees are, what they cover, and how often you can expect increases. Most HOAs in Utah have some limits on how much fees can be increased without homeowner approval. However, the board can usually approve a minimal increase without asking for input or taking a homeowner vote.
  • Verify what your fee covers: Be very specific when you look into what your HOA fee covers and what it doesn’t. If landscaping is included, find out the specifics—how often is the lawn mowed and edged? Is tree and hedge trimming included? What if you have a broken sprinkler? Verify policies for snow removal, waste and recycling, and which portions of your home are covered for repair under the HOA’s homeowners insurance policy.
  • Ask about big projects: HOAs need to maintain things like roofs, fences, and community amenities like swimming pools. Find out if any big projects are on the horizon and what the costs look like. Sometimes HOAs will impose a special assessment on top of your monthly fees in order to pay for something big like re-tiling the pool.
  • Read the minutes: HOA meeting minutes are public and available to all homeowners. Ask to review recent minutes, which should include the latest financials. Look for any complaints that seem consistent and note outstanding HOA fees from owners who are in arrears. The minutes should also include how much money is currently in the reserve account for emergencies and big projects. This can give you a clue into the health of the community and the potential for extra fees and increases.

  • Study the CC&Rs: The HOA governs the CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions, & Restrictions) of the community. These are the rules that let homeowners know what modifications are allowed (painting, shutters, etc.) and what is not allowed. Some communities have liberal policies and others are highly restrictive, not even allowing wreaths on front doors or more than one small pet. Owners are fined if they violate the CC&Rs, so it’s highly important to understand what they are and whether or not you can live with them.

Life with an HOA… advice from Homie buyers and sellers

Many Homie buyers and sellers have lived with HOAs—and some have passed on a house because of the HOA—and wanted to share their experiences to help other home buyers.

Rob T. warns homeowners of the costs of an HOA over time, “Make sure that you understand the long-term costs of an HOA and consider if they are providing value equal to that cost. Since you are paying them monthly, make sure they doing their job. HOA‘s can be hit or miss. Some provide great value while others create huge hassles. Where possible, check with current residents in the area to see what they say about their HOA before you buy.”

Justin P. shared why he likes his HOA, “I like having an HOA to protect my property value from gross negligence or outrageous and inconsiderate decisions by neighbors.” However, he added this advice, “Read the CC&Rs to know what restrictions you may have as a homeowner, but judge the HOA’s ability to protect your property value by browsing the existing neighborhood to see how well kept it is.”

Clinton M. cautions potential buyers about possible fines and liens, “When purchasing a home in an HOA neighborhood, be well aware of the fact that your neighbors will be on the lookout for any infractions and are willing to turn you in (subjecting you to fines) for any violations. Be advised that your failure to pay your dues will result in a lien against your property and you can be foreclosed upon by your community. Not surprisingly, the community interest is at stake – if the HOA bankrupts, it goes on your credit too! The best advice I could give to any family or friend would be to think twice about purchasing in an HOA community.”

Homeownership is exciting, and it’s important to feel confident and comfortable about the community in which you buy. If an HOA is part of the package, be sure to do your research first. It’s nearly impossible to get out of HOA requirements and restrictions, and if you’re not happy with how yours is run, you could be in for a world of headaches, extra fees, and disappointment.