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5 tips to resolving disputes with your HOA

A report in the Tampa Bay Times makes clear how powerful-and unforgiving-homeowners' associations (HOAs) have become throughout Florida. The article describes an elderly couple in Clearwater whose granddaughter had come to live with them. The girl's father was unknown and her mother was unable to care for her due to long-standing drug problems.

Yet the Stottlers lived in a retirement community where, according to HOA bylaws, children were not permitted to stay more than 60 days a year. The couple attempted to sell their home, but it was 2007 and the housing bubble had just burst.

There was simply no one to buy the Stottlers' unit. They appealed to their HOA: "Please understand," the Stottlers wrote, "we are doing everything possible."

The HOA responded with a court summons.

An HOA's purpose may differ from its practice

Stories like the Stottlers' are by now familiar.

The purpose of HOAs is to protect property values and oversee neighborhood maintenance, among other activities, that benefit a given community. Many of them do just that. Yet more and more often, individuals find themselves in conflict with their HOAs.

As noted in Gawker, these organizations have "become somewhat infamous for imposing arbitrary fines and liens...treating people unfairly, enforcing strict adherence to their rules, collecting fees, and acting irrationally or illegally."

The problem, in many cases, arises from a combination of two factors. Firstly, HOA covenants tend to be fairly ironclad. Secondly, HOA boards are rarely reluctant to enforce these covenants-even if it means going to court.

What you can do

Resolving a dispute with your HOA may be challenging, but there are a number of steps you can take to keep the odds in your favor.

  • Know your HOA's rules thoroughly - The members of your HOA's board will be familiar with the regulations. You should be, too. It is imperative, before protesting any HOA action against you, to know whether your own activities are permissible according to your community bylaws.
  • Document any interactions with your HOA - During (and, optimally, prior to) any dispute with your HOA, keep records of emails, letters, bills, and warnings you've sent or received. This is a simple way to establish concrete background evidence concerning any wrongdoings you may suffer.
  • Pay your fines and dues - If you fail to meet your HOA's monetary obligations, the board may have the ability to place a lien on your property or foreclose on it-even if you're in the middle of an ongoing dispute. It is much more advantageous to pay your fees, as they can often be recovered in court at a later date.
  • Team up with your neighbors - It is common for several members within a community to face the same issues with their HOA. Collaborating makes it easier to change HOA bylaws and make them more reasonable, and strengthens an individual's case if matters go to trial.
  • Consult with a lawyer - Many HOA infractions take place in a gray area of the law. It may be valuable to speak with an attorney concerning the legality of actions your HOA has undertaken.

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