The Battle With Homeowners Associations

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Calgary House by Bill Longstaff
Calgary House by Bill Longstaff

Congratulations! You’ve just bought a new house in a great neighbourhood and you’re ready to move in. A signed contract together with all the necessary documents is resting in your briefcase. Is there anything that can disturb your happiness? Many first-time buyers lack the experience and can therefore end up in trouble just for not being aware of some important details. Is there anything we can do to secure our happily ever after?

Homeowners Associations – who are they?

Homeowners Associations (HOAs) are formal legal entities established to maintain the quality and value of the properties and common areas involved and to ensure compliance with their internal rules and obligations. HOAs are usually created when a new housing development is built. Membership in the association is typically a condition of purchase.

Homeowner Associations – how do they work?

Homeowners Association members usually meet once a month and focus on handling the HOA’s business. Residents participate in annual elections and vote for board members and directors. You’re asked to pay a membership fee that ranges according to location and size of a neighbourhood. In general, HOAs in the U.S. and Canada work on a very similar basis, but there might be minor differences corresponding to differences in U.S. and Canadian law.

Homeowners Association bylaws are the most important points to look at when signing the contract. Be extra careful when reading the contract; in extreme circumstances, disobeying the rules can lead to a lawsuit. The board of directors meets members usually once a year to discuss current bylaws. If members disagree with any point mentioned in the bylaws, a referendum is held. Details regarding elections and referenda are specific for every HOA and are further explained in the contract.

Homeowners Associations – bylaws explained

Even when bylaws vary from association to association, there are some general points that don’t change, so we will look at each point closely.

Community Design & Maintenance Standards

Roof Lines by Groton School
Roof Lines by Groton School

The design and maintenance standard will usually have its separate section. It states important information regarding the exterior design of a property, its maintenance, and its overall condition.

You should pay extra attention to this section if you plan to reconstruct your property. It can be a small repair such as painting the window frames or large-scale a change including but not limited to painting your house or changing your roof. Every reconstruction needs to be approved by board members. The board will make sure the reconstruction complies with the overall design of the neighbourhood and will not stick out more than necessary.

The HOA board also needs to make sure all developments meet the minimal standards; they are fully functional and don’t pose a threat to the owners themselves or their neighbours.

If a certain fault is discovered, homeowners need to make sure the fault will be fixed or repaired. Proper repair and maintenance keeps your property from developing and accelerating the damage already caused. In many cases, it also prevents neighbouring properties from being damaged too. Therefore the HOA board can enforce homeowners to repair any faults that will develop on their property. Not accepting the enforcement can lead to a lawsuit.

Vehicles and Parking

Many Homeowners Associations stated their regulations regarding vehicles and parking. Usually no more than three vehicles of any type may be parked upon any lot, and one vehicle must be parked in the garage and the others only within the area(s) designated for parking. Some HOAs can have very strict restrictions regarding off-road cars, vans, or trucks.

If homeowners violate this regulation, their cars can be towed from the property. The lot owner responsible for the presence of such a vehicle shall pay charges for towing and storage.

Trash Cans & Recycling Bins

Recycling Bins by Elliott Brown 1
Recycling Bins by Elliott Brown

As the HOA is trying to make the neighbourhood look reputable and clean, all bins must be kept in a certain area specially designed for this purpose. Trash cans can be left outside no sooner than a night before scheduled pick-up.

This regulation should prevent littering and should keep all sidewalks clean and safe.

Usually there is no penalty for not obeying this regulation.

Pets and Pet Waste

This is one of the most important points in the by-laws. It is hugely discussed and pets can raise countless arguments and disputes.

Most of the regulations state that you can have a pet in the property as long as you prevent your pet from soiling any portion of the common area. When walking your pet, it should be secured on a leash and shouldn’t disturb the neighbourhood.

In the vast majority of cases, only animals regarded as pets (birds, cats, parrots, rabbits, hamsters, etc.) can be kept on the property. When you plan to have a pet that doesn’t fall in this category, you need the approval of the board committee. In the past, many lawsuits took place to solve the problem over having an unusual pet.

Violating the bylaws – what are the possible scenarios?

Being unaware of the regulation isn’t an excuse. We should always read all the pages of a contract we are signing and ask any question regarding the uncertainties we have prior to signing the document.

Whenever we plan to do something that can influence the lives of our neighbours, we should discuss it with a HOA board member. This behaviour prevents any misunderstandings, tensions, and lawsuits in extreme cases.

Many homeowners happen to be in conflict with one of the rules at least once in their lives. It can be something as minor as leaving a trashcan on a sidewalk where no penalty is denoted. But what happens when we violate the by-law in a greater way and serious prosecution seems imminent?

Let me share some advice on how to solve the HOA battles

• Try to find out what can be done to limit the impact of your change on your neighbourhood. Finding and agreeing on a compromise is the best possible scenario for both sides.

Calgary Neighborhood by Payton Chung
Calgary Neighborhood by Payton Chung
E.g. You changed the old windows for new ones. They have a different structure and different material was used, and even though they are new and efficient, they stand out too much. The HOA board wants you to change them back. Try to come to an agreement through which you can keep the windows but you will have them pained to a colour of the old ones. You suggested a compromise that can be acceptable for both sides.

• As we are all moving towards a healthier lifestyle, using alternative sources of energy can be an interesting option. Installing a solar cell system on our roof can, however, be in conflict with HOA exterior regulations.

E.g. You invested in a solar system and shortly after, you have it installed on your roof. An HOA board representative visits you, saying the exterior change you have just made doesn’t comply with the by-law and you should take the solar system down. He makes a point that solar panels will reduce the neighbourhood’s property values and homeowners’ ability to sell their homes because they are “ugly." In this case, try asking for a property valuation by a real estate analyst or suggest moving the solar cells to a less visible part of the roof.

• Moving to a new house with a garden is often bounded with buying a pet. While usual pets are welcomed and appreciated, you might find it less welcoming for an unusual pet such as a pig, peacock, duck, or more exotic pet like a tiger or puma. Even though you don’t violate any points described in the contract regarding the behaviour of your pet (you walk your pet tied on a leash, it doesn’t disturb the peace, and it doesn’t soil in the common areas) it certainly doesn’t comply with the one most important statement: you don’t own a typical pet. Signing a petition can solve this situation. Although the HOA board doesn’t have to accept the petition, having your neighbours on your side is helpful.

If the Homeowners Association doesn’t want to agree on a compromise, what can you do?

Every Homeowners Association is different, and where one can be absolutely okay with you altering the regulations a tiny bit, another can view it as a violation and embark on prosecution. Always try to reach an agreement and discuss the possible options with the board and other members. Only when you are absolutely unable to come to a compromise should you look for another options.

There is no one right answer to what to do in a case when prosecution against you has started; however, it always helps to have the majority of your neighbours on your side supporting your statement. Whenever possible, obtain unbiased documentation proving your violation doesn’t pose any threat to your neighbours or community. In extreme cases, try going public. Let people know about your problems and keep them up to date with the latest news regarding your case. Call local newspapers or television stations and inform them about what is happening in their neighbourhood.

Calgary has many communities bigger than HOAs that can advise you or give you a helping hand. Be open to all possible solutions and you will very likely end up solving your problem with minimal harm.

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