How to Handle Disagreements with an HOA
Some 20% of the US population lives in communities governed by condo owners associations (COAs), cooperatives or homeowners associations (HOAs). While there are certainly advantages to living under an association (such as enjoying higher property values compared to surrounding non-association communities), conflicts between residents and association boards are commonplace. Indeed, the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in the Public Interest conducted a survey in 2015 that found that 72% of residents had experienced disputes that were “difficult” to resolve.
Florida law gives associations broad powers to regulate their communities and enforce their rules, bylaws as well as their Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs). Because of the legal framework around associations in the State of Florida, residents that confront their associations often find that the odds are not in their favor.
However, homeowners have a strong case when they can show that an association is acting in bad faith or failing to live up to its legal obligations.
Because associations are closely regulated by federal law, state statute, local regulations and their own association documents, the first step in prevailing legally over an association must come from understanding the laws that govern the association.
However, even in cases where a homeowner is clearly in the right, it may be prohibitively expensive and time consuming to proceed to sue an association in civil court. A homeowner winning the case in such a situation is often a pyrrhic victory. This is because homeowners are often responsible for paying their own legal fees despite winning the case. The association’s legal costs, for their part, are shared among the homeowners – including the homeowner who took legal action!
Therefore the key to conflict resolution with an association often is to avoid direct confrontations in court and to resolve matters through negotiation and compromise before they escalate to litigation.
“…homeowners have a strong case when they can show that an association is acting in bad faith or failing to live up to its legal obligations.”
For example, an association and a homeowner may clash over the collection of a special assessment or the payment of a fine. The homeowner, in such a case, risks having a lien placed against their home and may eventually even face foreclosure by the association as a means of recovering the money due. In many cases, the association has the right to tack on legal costs fees and late charges to the lien.
Because the homeowner may lose their home through foreclosure, the stakes are high. Nevertheless, there is recourse to resolve the situation through talking to the association and making a strong case to reduce or repeal the fine or assessment. While every case is different, homeowner strategies for handling this conversation with an association may include explaining the case for a repeal or reduction in the fine. In some cases, where the letter of the law does not clearly support the homeowner’s case, then the homeowner may need to appeal to the board’s sense of fairness. In doing so, it is important to tread carefully, it may offend if the implication is that the board is acting unfairly without any evidence to support it. However, pointing out cases where the board may have let infringing behavior slide in the past may be sufficient to have the board reduce the enforcement action to a warning rather than a fine.
Be humble. In cases where a homeowner admits guilt, then an apology and promise to not commit the violation in the future may be in order. Associations have been known to step back from enforcement when approached in this way.
Ironically, the most difficult situation to manage can be one in which an association’s board has violated their own rules or a federal, state or local law. In such cases, homeowners will be wise to watch their demeanor and avoid charging in with threatening language that risks escalating the conflict. Instead, carefully researching where and how the violation was committed by the board, and presenting the case in neutral written language is often the best course of action.
In any case, homeowners in a dispute with their association can improve their chances by being open to negotiating a compromise.
The Importance of Legal Counsel
Homeowners can benefit from having an attorney on their side. Homeowners involved with a dispute with their association’s board will note that the association usually has legal representation. A law firm or lawyer is often contracted to for collection fines and assessments and enforcement of rules. In addition, it is not unusual that people with legal backgrounds volunteer for association boards, and property management associations may provide legal support to associations as part of their service.
Because boards have legal representation, it evens the playing field when homeowners also have legal counsel they can rely on. An experienced Florida law firm that specializes in HOA law can help homeowners by:
Reviewing laws and association documents. Legal counsel can review all applicable laws and the association’s rules and regulations. Once this is done, they can identify the extent to which a homeowner has a case and if so what strategies can result in a favorable outcome.
Being professional. A lawyer can make a case for the homeowner without making it personal. Having a good lawyer involved creates a layer of professionality that makes disputes with associations less confrontational. Because association boards are made up of volunteers taken from amongst the homeowner’s neighbors, maintaining cordial relationships with everyone involved is advantageous.
Responding in writing. When something is in writing, it avoids conjecture about what people may or may not have said. The key is knowing what to write so that the case is made and the desired result it achieved. Lawyers with experience in handling association disputes in Florida would know what and what not to write in order to further a homeowner’s case.
Knowing what to argue. Since people can sometimes take accusations, fines and enforcement personally, there is a temptation to form arguments around opinions and perceptions rather than facts. Lawyers, on the other hand, are trained to argue according to the facts and in line with applicable laws, rights and obligations.
Advising on strategy. Does it make financial sense to proceed to litigation or accept an offer? Should a homeowner pay the fees, assessments and or fines and ask for a refund later? What arguments are likely to result in a favorable resolution of the matter? A Florida lawyer that specializes in resolving HOA conflicts can provide homeowners with the answers to these and similar questions.
South Florida Law
The complexities of Florida Housing Association and Condominium law make it difficult to navigate with the support of an experienced legal counsel. If you find yourself involved in a dispute with your housing association, be sure not to “go it alone”. Here at South Florida Law, we have boutique firm attention to detail with the big firm resources necessary to take on a homeowner or condo association that is violating your rights. Call us today at 305.900.8885 or reach out via our contact form.