HOAs: Responsible maintenance vs. meddlesome board members

Homeowners Association or HOA is a term that can cause panic among house-shoppers and scare them away from buying a condominium, which invariably comes with monthly association dues ranging from the mid-$100s to nearly $1,000.

So maybe a midlife-crisis single guy looking at a swinging bachelor pad in Marina Pacifica listed at $499,000 thinks to himself, “OK, I’m putting 100 grand in for the down payment and looking at a $1,849 monthly mortgage payment and on top of that I’m getting hit with HOA dues of $529 a month? That’s nearly 29 percent of my mortgage.” That’s pretty quick thinking for a guy without a calculator and a sensible car, and he’s gotta be wondering if he’s throwing money down a rat hole, as if HOA dues are some sort of penalty you have to pay for buying a condo rather than a single-family home.

The living room in a Marina Pacifica condo that’s listed at $499,000. The HOA dues for the 873 square-foot unit are $529 a month. Courtesy photo.

Making matters sometimes worse, HOA boards are often made up of a condo complex’s members, which means your neighbors are empowered to stick their noses in your business and become involved with your unit’s appearance and maintenance, as well as your own behavior, which, if you’ve ever had a particular kind of neighbor, you know can be problematic.

The flip side, though, is your HOA dues are pretty much paying for everything that will or could go wrong, not only with your residence in particular, but with the entire building.

“So, with an HOA, you’re paying for everything to be taken care of,” says Realtor Ben Fisher. “That could be awesome or a nightmare, if you get a board member who says you can’t put a particular welcome mat in front of your door without getting fined for it.”

Fisher recommends the due diligence of looking over the HOA’s covenants, conditions and restrictions to determine if things fit your lifestyle: Rules about smoking, pets, noise levels, parking and such aesthetics as paint color and landscaping. “There’s a lot you’ve got to wrap your head around,” says Fisher. “You often get one or two sticklers on the board telling you things like Halloween’s too far past for you to have a pumpkin on your porch. Every HOA has pretty interesting dynamics.”

A particularly noteworthy example of running afoul of a condo building’s rules is the case of a woman in a Downtown Long Beach tower who, in 2005, was fined repeatedly by the HOA. The woman, who had an injury that required her needing a cane, would walk with her cocker spaniel named Ginger through the lobby floor on their way outside. The rules said owners had to carry their dogs in and out of the lobby, so she was fined $25 for each trip that her dog padded through the lobby. She eventually racked up a bill totaling $600 before selling her unit and leaving the building.

And HOAs have been a source of innumerable lawsuits and lesser bits of bickering throughout their history, with condo coups and recalls of officers not uncommon as you might expect when neighbors find themselves in a situation where they can tell other neighbors how to conduct themselves and their residences—and pay hundreds of dollars monthly for the privilege.

While some of the smaller buildings—usually apartments that have been converted to condos—your HOA dues can be as low as about $180 a month, while the Pacific-view Ocean Boulevard high rises can come close to $1,000.

Looking for a place with HOA dues? A one-bed, one-bath, 612 square-foot unit in this building on Chestnut Avenue in Downtown is listed at $285,000, with monthly HOA dues of $183. Courtesy photo.

Realtor Mike Dunfee, who sells a lot of condos on the seaside boulevard, including the Aqua and West Ocean buildings, says when properly managed, HOA dues, which run from about $550 to $900 a month, are worth the money.

“If they’re managed properly, part of those dues goes into a reserve,” he said. “So you’re paying for an elevator that’s gotta be installed years in the future, or you’re paying for a new roof a few years ahead. That way, you don’t get the sudden surprise of a special assessment when there’s an emergency repair.”

A major special assessment was experienced by owners in the historic Villa Riviera when it became time to repaint and repair the building in 2007 at a cost of more than $4 million, the owners of the 134 units in the structure were hit with an assessment of $32.95 per square foot, resulting in some residents having to pay upward of $50,000.

HOA dues, says Dunfee, takes care of the inevitable repairs and expenses with running a building, the same expenses, in many cases, that the owner of a single-family home might have to grapple with annually.

“If you have a house and are disciplined enough to set money aside each month for a future roof, plumbing, painting, landscaping, HVAC, what would you put in every month?” said Dunfee.

If you’re like me, you don’t know, because you’re not disciplined enough. For many homeowners, every repair is a special assessment.

And your HOA dollars aren’t always aimed at future calamity. Your dues payment also buys you, in the more upscale buildings, such amenities as a heated pool and spa, gym, security systems and guards, community rooms, a barbecue area, parking spaces and even a concierge who will receive packages sent to you and hold onto them until you get home.

Snatching another slice out of your HOA dues is the cost of simply keeping the building nice. “You know how much it costs to air-condition the common areas?” says Dunfee. “We just painted the Aqua for a million dollars, and it wasn’t just for color. It’s to protect the building. The ocean is murder on a building. We put in new carpet every 10 years. You want the pool heated? What’s that cost?”

HOAs, says Dunfee, are like little cities. The dues are like the taxes you pay, but instead of fixing potholes and paving roads, you’re getting a hot tub, a fire pit and a guy who signs for your Amazon deliveries.

And, sure, like the city, there is corruption and a few folks who may be looking out for themselves, or just like to throw their weight around. “Why do people even want to be on an HOA board? Again it’s like a city. Why do you run for city council or become a policeman? Maybe you want to work for the betterment of the community. Maybe you’re doing it because no one else steps up to do it. Maybe you love the power of people having to do what you tell them. Same with the HOA members. There are good ones and bad ones, just like in politics. But if it’s well run and managed, it’s definitely worth it.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.