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We put out the call, “Tell us your HOA horror stories,” and you came back in your millions. Okay, your dozens. Okay, nearly a dozen. The issue was courage. How could people report on the hell they were living without incurring the wrath of their homeowner association condo-complex captains, who ruled members’ daily lives, from where to place their garbage bins, to what color to paint the doors of the homes they owned, to whether they could park in their own driveway?

Here’s “Ada” (not her real name — like many, she is afraid of retaliation), HOA-complex resident, venting: “Life in my complex? Think a thousand little Watergates.

“Noisegate — I complained about the neighbor’s noise. The HOA board sent me a letter — and I was on the HOA board.

“Treegate — I got neighbors to complain about the board’s removing too many trees without notice, like the one outside my door. They tried to remove me from the board.

“Doorgate — The board harassed me, first by making me repaint my screen door twice, then making me remove it, taking away my only view.

“Petgate — I complained about cat poop and dog bark, and the board continued to allow all sizes and number of pets.

“Woodgate — The property manager is replacing wooden decks needlessly, and the board is helpless to control them. And we’re expected to pay for them.

“Meetingate — The board canceled two meetings in four months when owners wished to complain. The board does not allow any discussion except for three-minute complaints. It holds secret sessions about contracts and claims this is the law.”

And more. You can get fazed by the largeness of the number of issues and the apparent smallness of each individual issue. But Ada echoes a sentiment of the many condo homeowners living at the whim of the few, the powerbrokers who can do anything from fining you to actually foreclosing on your home in the vague legal atmosphere that governs the 6000 HOA condo complexes of San Diego County.

Why no easy-to-understand laws governing this very San Diego societal phenomenon? San Diego is the most HOA-dominated county in the state after Los Angeles. And interestingly, San Diego HOAs seem to be a lot richer: they have a total annual revenue of $1.5 billion, just a hair behind L.A.’s $1.6 billion, even though L.A. has 13,258 HOAs, double San Diego’s 6000, according to figures put out by Levy Erlanger & Co., a San Francisco accounting firm representing 1000 HOAs in the state.

That shouldn’t be a bad thing.

Homeowners’ associations are supposed to be an exercise in democracy, right? The developers build the complexes, people buy the condos, then take over responsibility for the upkeep and appearance and running expenses — and legal title to the place through their duly elected representatives on the HOA Board. So how come there seems to be a continuous chorus of complaints from people living what you might call the perfect kibbutzin, socialist-capitalist marriage: homes, but in a community setting, designed and grouped together to share grounds and gardens and values for harmonious living?

In a way, the whole HOA is a sucker’s game set up by a collusion of developers and local governments. Unpaid HOA boards use HOA assessment fees to pay for what should be the municipality’s responsibility, such basics as roads, electricity, sewage, and water. Developers create high-profit, high-density housing and then hand it over, lock, stock, and all financial and legal responsibilities to these amateur boards not only to run what often amount to million-dollar businesses, but also to keep on paying property taxes to local government for the infrastructure services those authorities didn’t actually have to provide or keep up. No wonder cities love them just as much as developers. No wonder HOA-run condo complexes have mushroomed sixfold, from 7000 in California 20 years ago to about 43,000 today, housing around 10 million, maybe a quarter of the state’s entire population.

HOAs are basically nonprofit associations that homeowners form to maintain their development’s common areas, with a bottom-line mandate to protect their property values. Each homeowner pays a monthly “assessment,” or fee, to finance common expenses, like maintenance of the landscaping, repairing of walks and roads, and keeping pools swimmable. Fees are also supposed to fund a reserve of money to take care of big jobs, such as reroofing, that might come up. Even though each owner has a deed to his/her home, they agree to a set of rules that restrict their independence — including a recognition of the HOA board’s right to foreclose on your home, just for not keeping up with the monthly HOA assessments.

In the ultimate in outsourcing, some giant HOAs run virtual cities in the government’s place. Irvine’s Woodbridge Village Association has to maintain 35 parks and 48 swimming pools. The Aliso Viejo Community Association is responsible for over 15,000 housing units, a small metropolis of maybe 50,000. And authorities love these cities within cities. In fact, many mandate that any new developments be run by HOAs, because they always substantially relieve authorities of new infrastructure costs.

But the one saving grace is this is supposed to be democracy in action. HOA boards are elected and work at the pleasure of homeowners.


That’s what Ada believed, too. “I live in a condo complex in a lower-income area on the border with Clairemont, and they’re probably the cheapest ones in the Western Hemisphere. I paid $40,000 for my studio in 1998. One-bedrooms were $60,000 at that time. Now they’re worth maybe three times that much. Our mortgage and the maintenance is $600 a month. And this complex is half studios and half one-bedrooms. A lot of single people live here. Maintenance [assessment fees] started at $150 per month, and now it’s at $250. It’s 12 buildings with two levels. I’m a ‘downstairs.’ We have these patios that face each other. You go on your patio, you might as well be in my bedroom. Patio, studio/bedroom, that’s it. Nowhere else to go. You can hear everything, but for that price, who’s complaining?

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Comments

HOAGOV Feb. 17, 2010 @ 11:21 a.m.

Great coverage!!

For those readers seeking to better understand HOAs, please see http://starman.com/hoagov for articles on the foundations of HOAs and the New America -- the intentions and motivations of the designers of the HOA model in 1964, and of Community Associations Institute (CAI), the HOA national lobbying. The articles contain numerous references to court cases and the writings of others, including the pro-HOA people, over the past 44 years. Statements like those that support HOAs as de facto governments in competition with local government.

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PistolPete Feb. 17, 2010 @ 2:24 p.m.

I'll NEVER own or live in an HOA complex. People who opt to live or own in an HOA complex deserve everything they get.

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SDaniels Feb. 17, 2010 @ 4:44 p.m.

I am a renter, but have observed for years the soap opera that is the HOA in our building. The position of President of the HOA board has been hijacked by a crazy person, who recently sued an elevator repairman for saying "Lady, you need some help." She accomplished her deed by campaigning for votes from the many absent owners who live out of state and are unaware of building politics--or her mental problems, about which the elevator repairman was correct (and the court thought so, too). Now she reigns over a board of people who are apparently unsure of how to depose her. As a consequence, morale is nonexistent, and the building--and unsuspecting renters-- suffer for it.

Example: Last week I reported to some residents who own units that there was a leak in a hallway ceiling that seemed to become a steady stream whenever water was turned on in the unit above. That was Friday. We went away for the weekend, and on Monday, found the leak had gotten even worse, and that the hall carpet now smelled of mildew, as well as being soaked over three times the square footage as when I first discovered the problem. The board waited until the ceiling rotted through to do anything, and now it is a much bigger, more expensive mess than it would have been a week and a half ago. This kind of situation is all too familiar, and it would take a formal PowerPoint presentation to run down all that has gone wrong with plumbing and structure here while bewildered HOA members run around pointing fingers at one another, their only consistent action being to tighten the community purse strings. Sad for democracy ;)

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Visduh Feb. 17, 2010 @ 8:09 p.m.

Sounds like local SD politics in microcosm. Let a simple repair go until you have a major infrastructural failure. At least there's no employee pension plan with retirement at 50 and a DROP option--is there?

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Northee Feb. 18, 2010 @ 1:38 p.m.

Sorry I missed the call for HOA horror stories. I recently went on the board of 2 HOA's, because it seemed the only way to find out where all the money was going.

What I found was a lot worse than I imagined, largely due to lack of interest by most owners. The boards serve the PROPERTY according to their personal preferences, and tend to think of owners and residents as the enemy.

Communication--I found meeting agendas not posted, websites not updated, and even who is on the board not communicated. One project's employees view their job to control their owners, with no inference of serving.

Financial management--Little concern for what the owners want in spending their money. One HOA required owners to pay several thousand dollars to clean dryer ducts, when the on site maintenance worker could have done for almost no cost. Another HOA charges $90 to register a cat and $115 for a new tenant! One HOA pays $700 per month for maintaining potted plants, as we have no yards! The president recently decided to pay over $5,000($60 per unit)for flood insurance, even though the units are not in any flood zone.

Litigation--Owners' funds are at risk with no input, as all decisions are made in executive session. One HOA has spent over $80,000 on a lawsuit because the board did not want to wait for corrections that were likely going to be required already. An attorney was paid over $45,000 last year to collect delinquencies and offer advice; the budget was $15,000 for legal.

Legislation to require better procedures and enforcement is one answer to these horror stories. A great need also exists for business-oriented and fiscally prudent people to serve. I estimate all 86 units in one condo project are paying at least $100 per month more than required. That is a lot of money being wasted!

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bombshell Feb. 19, 2010 @ 3:40 p.m.

I was so disappointed to read the stories and comments in this feature, but somehow not surprised.

I work in the property mgmt business and quickly assume the same role as the "a-hole cops" or "mean judges" and "sucky parents". Yes, I have seen my fair share of porly ran HOA's or bad Boards, but there are laws and civil codes that govern how each of these bodies of authority rule your HOA. Just like the real world people. Educate yourself and you may not be so quick to judge. If you sign into a community where noise must be kept down after 10pm, don't make noise after 10pm. It doesn't allow for family gathering noise after 10pm but not parties of young college student renters. ITS SAYS NO NOISE. Even if you have a perfect account of no late fees or fines, it still says no noise. (Just because there are people speeding on the freeway, it doesn't mean the cops aren't doing their job. You aren't going to get out of a speeding ticket by pointing out to the cop that there are other people speeding or speeding faster.) Rules are Rules. They aren't perfect, but I believe anyway, set forth to create a well balanced and harmonious living basis to exist around.

It is so disheartening to see seemingly capable adults be allowed to own property and then not take pride in following the rules that they sign into governing them. Their failure to comply with the requests of the Association shine a negative light on homeowners who are trying. Who are complying. The only thing worse than that is the attitude, rude remarks, immature behavior, and tanturms homeowners throw when they are held at the same regard as everyone else in their community. And at the same regard for the rules in which were in place when you signed acceptance of the CC&R's for your community.

There is no perfect system within the microcosm of HOA's. But I can assure you there are no kangaroo courts, nazi camps, children haters, or people who sit around coming up with ways to ruin your life. There are however amazing communities out there, with wonderful, well educated Boards of volunteer homeowners, professional management companies, and hard working vendors that get it.

Here's hoping some of you homeowners do as well.

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PistolPete Feb. 19, 2010 @ 3:55 p.m.

Adolph Hitler thought he was right too, bombshell. Just sayin'...

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David Dodd Feb. 19, 2010 @ 6:47 p.m.

"It is so disheartening to see seemingly capable adults be allowed to own property and then not take pride in following the rules that they sign into governing them."

Yes, because owning property isn't a right, it's a privilege. Basically, when you pay a HOA, you're paying some organization in order to not have to beat the snot out of your neighbors when they misbehave. What a load of crap. I actually laughed when I read this piece. And I felt sorry for everyone involved on both sides, because really, it's a sad world when people pay because they don't want the responsibility of keeping their neighbors in check.

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ribbldj Feb. 20, 2010 @ 9:11 p.m.

Being an investor in two different condo complex's and having been part of three different HOA's in other state, I would strongly agree. The HOA's, property management as well as legal system here in San Diego is not in it at all to support the owners. The Davis Stirling Act is a joke, because no court will enforce the civil codes and the CC&R's. So as a warning to all of you who have conflicts with your HOA and/or property management, you need to work with them, not against them. NO ONE will support you even if the CC&R's support you. So you need to work with that BULLY, the HOA, and get them back on track to meet the needs of the owners.
It is extremely sad, because we are in a state where everyone is trying to maintain property value, but in a condo complex, a single owner has every card working against them.

I would love to see more HELP than war stories.

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guest123 Feb. 21, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

THANK YOU SD Reader for writing this story!! I live in a fairly new condo complex downtown and it's like the wild wild west out here. The HOA is running the building as if they are kings and the homeowners have NO say. Proper procedures are not followed. Changes to the rules are NOT voted on, and they are starting to hold the meetings in secret.

Any homeowner that voices concerns or attempts to communicate with the HOA is promptly shut out. I thought the HOA was supposed to be a cooperative group since we all have a stake as homeowners! Boy was I wrong.

At this point I'm planning to rent out my unit and get the heck out of here, maybe even sell it and cut my losses. One thing is for sure - I will NEVER EVER buy anything with an HOA ever again. I'd rather rent - at least it's easy to get out if the landlord is a jerk.

Our politicians need to enact legislation to bring the HOA's in check and protect individual homeowners, who often feel vulnerable against a corporate HOA with their own lawyers (paid for by our dues no less).

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StanleyHooperSD Feb. 21, 2010 @ 12:22 p.m.

Okay people, here's what that Dean Reese is all about:

http://www.citizensofthebook.com/Newsletter_May_2009.html

Looks like this guy...has his agenda, and by the looks of his association with MVCF, his mind is not open to discussion. It's his way, or the highway. I feel bad for Dr. Warren Reidel having to live near Reese. He apparently bounces around with his word (you can't park in front of your garage, but I can park in front of mine). This is a "man" who can't be trusted. And how dare he ask Dr. Reidel to host a Christmas party. Uh, hello, Reidel is Jewish. How about Reese host a Kwanzaa party while he's at it. Inconsiderate fool.

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crazyhair Feb. 22, 2010 @ 9:53 p.m.

I currently rent a condo in a complex managed by an HOA. The complex is in a highly-desired area of San Diego, it is gated, and it is very nice. The common landscaping is fairly well-maintained (although it would be nice if the landscape people would plant grass that actually grows), and I am happy with the pest control aspect the HOA takes care of. I don't do a whole lot of dealing with the HOA since I am a renter. However I did have to deal with them about a parking issue recently. We have 3 cars and 2 spaces, so one of our cars is always parked in the common area. Apparently residents have to have a parking permit to park in the common area. We were never informed of this, and it wasn't until they stuck a note on 2 of our cars threatening to tow them that we found this out. After submitting the application for a permit twice, we finally received a call back. This was when we found out that we had to provide proof of registration for all of our cars and then we would be issued a parking permit. When asked why, we were told it was so people wouldn't store cars for other people and take up spaces. Now, none of our three cars are registered in our names (we're young and they are all registered to our parents). So a guy came over and checked our registrations, and approved us, no questions asked about why our names weren't on the registrations. So technically, for all the guy knows, I could be storing a car for my parents. I asked about the guest parking policy, since my boyfriend comes over a lot. There is no real guest policy. Guests can park wherever they want in the common areas, and, in the words of the parking guy, "they can stay as long as they want. Technically they could stay indefinitely parked in the common areas." Hmmmm. So, the HOA makes residents have a permit but guests can park indefinitely. Does anyone else see how backwards this is? Had I been smart I would have told the HOA about 2 of our cars and then pretended the third was a guest. And when I buy a new car, I will not tell the HOA. This whole policy was dreamed up by a person who is retired and has NOTHING BETTER to do than walk around peering into cars (which he readily admits he does), memorizing license plates, and creating problems where there aren't problems. This is the main issue I have come across with HOAs. It's the people who have nothing else to do or are so unsatisfied with their own lives who go around poking their noses into other people's business. The whole premise of an HOA is for residents to manage a community. I agree with this. What HOAs have turned into are obnoxious boards made up of obnoxious people who worry way too much about what other people do, with the odd person who wants to change things for the better thrown in. I will never EVER buy a home in a HOA. I will park wherever I darn well please, I will have a screen door painted purple, and I will decorate my mailbox to look like a cow. And nobody will be able to say a gosh darn thing.

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Alice33 Feb. 23, 2010 @ 4:51 p.m.

"I'll NEVER own or live in an HOA complex. People who opt to live or own in an HOA complex deserve everything they get."

I would agree with that sentiment, PistolPete, except that in many parts of the country, people have NO CHOICE but to buy in an hoa. There aren't any other kinds of housing. Seriously. Any community that has seen any growth in the past 20-30 years will be infested with hoas. Buyers aren't "opting" to live there; buyers mostly don't even want hoas, but the cities and the developers cozy up because they each get something they want.

The developers get to cram too many homes in a teensy plot of land, and they get to control everyone's behavior until all the places are sold. The cities get to increase their tax base without increasing expenses, because hoas fund their own infrastructure at the same time that they pay the usual taxes.

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PistolPete Feb. 23, 2010 @ 9:09 p.m.

LOL, Mindy. :-D I sypathize with people who have HOAs. I can't really say, "Go live out in East County" because not everyone will be able to afford it. However, by knowing what you're getting into, you also have nobody else to blame but yourself. Complacency, unfortunetely, is continuing to murder "The Wild, Wild West".

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guest123 Feb. 25, 2010 @ 10:39 a.m.

PistolPete's comment:" "However, by knowing what you're getting into, you also have nobody else to blame but yourself."

Unfortunately, most people have no idea what they're getting into. You assume that the HOA will follow the CC&R's, right? Wrong. If they break their own rules (which happens often), and abuse their power, how do you stop them? You have to take them to court - which will cost you lots of $$$ and stress, especially when you have to see these people every morning when you step outside of your condo (they're "patrolling" the building to look for "trouble-makers").

Elect new directors? HOA "elections" are a joke. Oftentimes ballots are "inspected" by the HOA themselves. In our case the HOA didn't even post notice of the elections so many homeowners did not even know they were happening. There are none of the safeguards in typical "elections" like we see in government, but the HOA's are like mini-governments because they control how you live your life.

Lots of people just give up, especially if they have health conditions or don't have the money to pay an attorney. Lawyers are expensive. And in my opinion corporate HOA lawyers seem very happy to drag out lawsuits and bill for their time.

Also, many condo buyers are first-time homebuyers - fairly young and inexperienced. They have no idea what they're signing up for. Another large portion are older people who are easily targeted and feel vulnerable, and they are scared to speak up.

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PistolPete Feb. 25, 2010 @ 11:03 a.m.

I understand where you're coming from, guest123. On the other hand, this still America. I know enough about HOAs and CC&Rs to know, you get what you pay for. I'm the type of guy who might get a wild hair up his ass and paint his house black and draw a huge Satan on the side. I don't give a s about home values. Home values don't mean as much as people like to imagine. As long as my neighbors respect my privacy, I don't get two ss if they invite the circus over every night.

America-The NEW and IMPROVED socialism :-D

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scottman April 1, 2010 @ 11:23 p.m.

I've had my experience with the housing Nazi's. Never again.

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hiram Oct. 22, 2013 @ 5:51 a.m.

I agree with many aspects of the article. I own a condo in Asbury Park, New Jersey, The Presidential Condominium, 1615 Park ave. It was a nice place to live when I bought it years ago. Maintenance was around $300 (higher than average) but tolerable. Around 2006 things started to go south. The owners had always kept money in the reserve fund to take care of problems. Assessments were planned and evenly & economically implemented. We had a major roofing issue (cost over $100,000) and the association had money on reserve. The board decided to do an unnecessary $80,000+ lobby makeover. The other six floors were neglected & so was the roof. Next a bright idea from the board: assessment to replace the misspent fund & roof assessment. There was outrage & push back from some owners but it was met with disrespect from the board & the association lawyer. Many people including some of the board members sold their property to get from under the predicament they had caused. I now pay maintenance of over $600. No, there aren't any amenities to justify the cost, unless you consider having access to the main lobby doorbell an amenity. Each new board seems to worse than the last and in conjunction with the Townsmen LLC management company matters are worse. Transparency is a major issue. We paid money into a "beautification" fund, and when asked to see a list of what we paid for at a board meeting one of the board members became up-hauled at the mere question. We later learned that part of the fund was used to repair the boiler and that the remainder of the funds was more than enough to do the beautification. Therefore, we were going to over pay for another project. The list goes on and on. I wouldn't recommend condo living, especially not at the Presidential under Townsmen LLC management. Interview as many occupants as possible before making the decision to buy a condominium.

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