How to Handle Living in a Community With a HOA

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apostol_8/GettyCondos and many newer communities require paying dues and following the Homeowners Association’s rules.

By Teresa Mears

If you buy a condominium, townhouse or single-family home in a newer development, you’re likely to become a member of a community association.

About 20 percent of Americans live in a community governed by a condo association, homeowners association or co-op board, according to the Community Associations Institute, which educates volunteer board members and association management professionals. The number of communities covered by associations has grown from about 10,000 in 1970 to more than 333,000 today.

Community associations come with rules that determine everything from the number of pets you can own to what color you can paint your front door. Some include amenities such as pools, clubhouses and golf courses, while others provide services such as road maintenance and streetlights.

The associations are set up by developers and then turned over to a volunteer board of homeowners once all the units in the development are sold. Those volunteers are responsible for making sure facilities are maintained, collecting maintenance dues and enforcing the rules.

“This is the ultimate form of democracy,” says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the CAI.

While stories of homeowners associations that deny permission for a disabled child’s playhouse or won’t allow veterans to fly flags on the wrong kind of pole may steal the headlines, CAI statistics show that 64 percent of residents are satisfied with their community association experience and 26 percent are neutral, with only 10 percent dissatisfied, according to a 2014 survey.

But the same survey shows that almost a quarter of residents have experienced a significant disagreement with their association, with landscaping and parking being the two most common causes, followed by finances and architectural issues.

Whether you like or hate the rules that come with community association life, once you’ve bought or rented in an association, you’re committed to it. Being a member of an association ties your fate to your neighbors in ways that living in a traditional neighborhood does not.

“You have to overcome that ‘my home is my castle’ issue,” Rathbun says.

Rules are designed in part to protect property values, and 70 percent of the respondents in the CAI survey believe they do, while 26 percent believe they make no difference. Disagreements over which rules are required to protect property values often lead to conflicts that can cost residents both time and money if they’re handled poorly.

“People ought to know that being in a condo is a give-and-take kind of thing,” says Patrick Hohman, author of “Condos Townhomes and Home Owner Associations: How to Make Your Investment Safer” and a longtime volunteer board member who is now a part-time, on-site manager at a condominium near Louisville, Kentucky. He also runs an educational website called

“It’s a nonstop process of building trust and maintaining trust,” Hohman says. “You learn to be forgiving of others and forgiving of yourself. You deal with people where they are and as they are. It’s kind of like dealing with your extended family at Thanksgiving.”

One challenge for associations is that volunteer board members with no property management experience are charged with maintaining hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property. About two-thirds of associations hire professional managers, but the rest are managed by the residents themselves.

“Board members are almost never trained in property management,” says Richard Thompson, who publishes The Regenesis Report, a weekly newsletter for board members and developers. He also writes a syndicated column for Realty Times and just published the book “Trade HOA Stress for Success.” He recommends professional management — hiring trained and experienced property managers to oversee operations — for most associations. “If the board hires competent people, they’re going to stay ahead of the curve and not put fires out,” he says.

Communities are dependent upon the skills and personalities that residents and board members bring to the table. Some people are better than others at working with their neighbors, and residents with poor people skills can create problems for everyone, especially if they are elected to the board.

Experts say that communication and transparency — being very clear about where the money goes, welcoming residents at board meetings and sharing information about how decisions are made — go a long way toward building community harmony.

“There is no substitution for communication between the association and the residents,” Rathbun says.

Here are seven tips for getting along in a homeowners association.

1. Know the rules before you move in.

Too few prospective residents understand the rules before they buy or rent. It’s particularly important to be able to live with policies on pets, parking, rentals, noise and architectural guidelines. “Folks buy into a homeowner association without any clue of what they’re obligated to do,” Thompson says. “Few prospective buyers research these things before they close the deal.”

2. Follow proper procedures.

Boards should set up clear procedures for everything from getting permission to paint your front door to rental applications to installing a satellite dish, and homeowners should expect to follow those procedures.

3. Go to your neighbor before you go to the board.

The board is there to make sure the rules and regulations of the development are followed, but if your neighbor’s loud music annoys you, talk to your neighbor first before taking your complaint to the HOA board.

4. If you don’t like a rule, get your neighbors together to change it.

Changing circumstances may make some rules outmoded, and boards should review the rules every few years to make sure they’re all serving the community. If you don’t like a rule, talk to your neighbors and petition the board collectively for a change.

5. Volunteer to help your community.

It’s not always evident from the outside exactly what work the board of directors is doing and what issues the community faces. Once you move in, volunteer to help with a project or serve on a committee, and expect to serve on the board at some point. “Get involved. Don’t wait until you’re dissatisfied about something,” Rathbun says.

6. Try to stay out of court.

Every community has a few people who think the rules don’t apply to them, and some would rather fight than comply. A court battle can be costly, both in money and in emotional turmoil within the community. “Win, lose or draw, we are still talking about neighbors who have this bigger wall between them,” Thompson says. Adds Rathbun: “Be reasonable: That applies to both the homeowners and the volunteer homeowners who serve on the board.”

7. Have a long-range plan. State laws regarding reserves and planning vary, but it always makes sense to plan for items you know will have to be replaced or repaired, such as roads, roofs and pools. If the community has no reserves and no plan, a roof leak at a condominium complex could mean a surprise assessment of thousands of dollars for each homeowner. “If the board had been collecting money and planning for this … every member along the timeline would have been paying some portion,” Thompson says.


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Inside Tommy Hilfiger’s $75 Million Manhattan Penthouse

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Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse

Tommy Hilfiger took three years to renovate his two-story, 6,000-square-foot penthouse at New York’s famed Plaza Hotel. It is taking him about as long to sell it. The American fashion tycoon has dropped the price of the four-bedroom duplex to $75 million, the Real Deal reported.

Hilfiger listed the penthouse in 2013 for $80 million just before he married his second wife, Dee Ocleppo. Before another round of renovations, Hilfiger once had it on the market for $50 million, according to Curbed. Hilfiger purchased the classic unit and a neighboring unit for $25 million in 2008 when it was marketed as a “fixer-upper,” reported AOL Real Estate.

Hilfiger says he likes that this residence is in an iconic building on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. “I always wanted to acquire trophy real estate because location, location, location is very important. As an investment you can’t do better than that,” he says in a CNNMoney video.

The condo, on the 18th and 19th floors, has views of Central Park and Fifth Avenue from a private terrace. The Plaza is a fully staffed 24-hour white-glove condominium with a separate entrance from the hotel, according to the listing. Residents are offered the full complement of hotel services, including maid, valet and Todd English room service.

“Only the most luxurious finishes and materials were used to restore this property to its original grandeur, complete with 21st Century conveniences,” according to the listing.

A round, domed room in a turret contains a custom mural paying homage to Eloise, a character from Kay Thompson’s 1950s books about a girl who lives in the “room on the tippy-top floor” of the Plaza Hotel.

“If you surround yourself with things you love, it makes for a great home design,” Hilfiger told CNN.

Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse
Tommy Hilfiger Plaza Penthouse


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Whittier, Alaska: A Town Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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Whittier Alaska
ZillowThe Alaska town of Whittier features mountain views and spectacular wildlife. Condos are listed for $50,000 and less.

How would you like to live in a small seaside town with snow-capped mountain views, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city? The mayor is your neighbor, and so is the police chief. The people are friendly — and when you live there, just about everybody knows your name.

In the Alaska town of Whittier, population 218, some are living such a “dream.” And for a mere $49,500 for a two-bedroom condo, you could buy in to this life. A three-bedroom unit is $55,000.

The catch? Well, there’s winter. Plus, most of the town’s residents live under the same roof in a 14-story former military housing facility known as Begich Towers, reports NPR. The city government is housed on the main floor. So is the post office and a small grocery store, the Kozy Korner. There’s a church in the basement. You rarely have to leave home if you don’t want to. The school, serving elementary and secondary students, is even conveniently accessed through a pedestrian tunnel so the children can roll out of bed and get to school — in short sleeves — without ever having to go outside. That’s especially convenient in the winter, when winds can get up to 60 mph and 250 inches of snow fall annually. The town’s only playground is even indoors, reports the California Sunday Magazine.

If you do venture out, Anchorage is only an hour away. Get your fill on some finer dining or catch the latest flick, but don’t stay out too late. The 2.5-mile, one-lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel you have to drive through to get back home to the west side of Prince William Sound closes at 10:30 p.m. for those entering Whittier, according to If you’re late, you just might have to sleep in your car or head back to the big city for a hotel stay. The tunnel doesn’t open again for incoming traffic until 5:30 a.m. The single lane, supported above a working railroad track, is shared with outgoing traffic, alternating at 30-minute intervals.

If this serene life documented in a PBS video is not for you after all, maybe you’d still consider investing in a condo as rental property. Whittier is a major tourist attraction in the summer. With its 22 hours of daylight, more than 700,000 visitors come each year. “If you are a birder, come enjoy our world-class collection of raptors such as the bald eagle, the great gray owl and the elusive peregrine falcon,” boasts Mayor Daniel Blair on the city’s website. “During our glorious summer, we are often visited by humpback and orca whales [as well as] sea otters along with seals and sea lions.”

Interested? The out-of-state owner of the three-bedroom unit already has a renter, according to the property listing by Keller Williams Realty Alaska Group. But the tenant gets a 30-day notice to vacate if you want the place just for yourself.

Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning, 20-year veteran journalist who has been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009. Send her your tips & ideas. Follow her on Twitter at shereecurry.


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3 Things You Didn’t Know About Government-Backed Loans

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Conventional loans are the foundation of the mortgage industry. In a recent week, only about one in four prospective borrowers applied for a government-backed loan, according to survey data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs basically insure home loans made by participating lenders. These loans tend to have more lenient credit and underwriting requirements compared to conventional loans, which carry no government backing.

FHA and VA loans feature benefits that can be the right fit for the right buyer at the right time. To be sure, they also come with their own drawbacks. But there are misconceptions surrounding government-backed loans that can cloud the home-buying process and hurt both buyers and sellers.

Let’s take a quick look at three benefits of government-backed loans that tend to fly under the radar.

They Have Lower Average Interest Rates

Many buyers assume they can get the best interest rate with a conventional mortgage. Depending on your credit, the size of your down payment and other factors, that might be exactly the case. But every buyer’s credit and asset picture is different.

More important — and perhaps surprisingly — average interest rates actually tend to be lower on government-backed loans.

In February, the average note rate on a 30-year fixed conventional loan was 4.08 percent, according to mortgage technology firm Ellie Mae. That was the lowest average rate since June 2013. In comparison, the average rate for a fixed 30-year FHA loan was 3.94 percent, while the average for VA loans was even lower, at 3.77 percent.

Monthly averages are just that — averages. The rate you are quoted will depend on the lender, your credit and finances and more. But don’t automatically rule out a government-backed loan when you’re shopping for the best deal. In fact, government-backed borrowers with fair or so-so credit might be able to tap into the same or similar interest rates as a conventional buyer.

They Don’t Take Forever to Close

Another common misconception about government-backed loans is that they take forever to close. This one is probably rooted in some old truths, mostly because of the paperwork and bureaucracy that can accompany these loan types.

But automation, online systems and a greater focus on efficiency has helped the government loan programs catch up. For buyers, the “time to close” clock starts once you’re under contract on a home. At that point, on average, there’s really no difference between a conventional mortgage and a government-backed one.

The average conventional purchase loan closed in 39 days in February, according to Ellie Mae. For VA and FHA loans, it was a day longer.

On the refinance side, FHA refinances closed in 33 days on average, surpassing both conventional loans (36 days) and VA loans (37 days).

They’re More Likely to Close
Sellers and lenders want to see prospective buyers make it to closing day. Veterans, service members and the historic VA home loan program all stand above the rest when it comes to closing success.

A full 73 percent of the VA purchase loan applications made over the previous 90 days went on to close, according to the February data from Ellie Mae. That’s compared to 68.8 percent of conventional purchase applications and just 62.8 percent of FHA applications.

Government-backed loans aren’t the solution for every buyer. In fact, only a relatively small percentage of the population is even eligible for a VA home loan. But getting a better understanding of all your mortgage options is key to getting the best deal. Don’t let stereotypes or misconceptions keep you from making the strongest home loan comparison possible.


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5 Mowing Mistakes to Avoid to Improve Curb Appeal

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BAX1KK Man mowing front lawn Man; mowing; lawn; caucasian; color; image; day; domestic; life; gardener; gardening; Hispanic; ho

Curb appeal can be important in selling a house, giving potential buyers a first look at the outside of what could be their new home. Whether it’s new paint, flowers or a new lawn that you’ve put down yourself, having a clean, well-kept front of a home can make a good first impression that encourages house shoppers to come inside.

If you’ve laid down sod yourself for your front lawn, it can be enough work to get it right and make sure the grass grows and doesn’t die. But more than just watering is required afterward, and some homeowners make mistakes with a new lawn that can hurt their home’s curb appeal. (If you live in an area affected by drought, low-water landscaping is an option.)

Here are five mowing mistakes to avoid if you want your lawn to give a great first impression to home buyers, according to Mark Schmidt, a principal scientist at John Deere:

1. Cutting too short: Each time you mow, only remove about one-third of the grass blade. Shorter clippings break down more easily, allowing some of the natural nitrogen to return to the soil. If you cut too much at one time, the long clippings can cause stress on the grass, inhibiting healthy growth.

Removing only a small amount of the blade each time you mow is a good practice and will give you the best quality turf.

2. Mowing pattern monotony: Mowing your lawn in the same pattern all year is one habit worth breaking. Mowing grass in the same direction all the time can mat down the turf and inhibit growth. By varying the pattern in which you mow your grass, you will avoid missing or double mowing areas and reduce wear on the turf. The will encourage a healthier, more beautiful lawn.

3. Bagging it: Though bagging clippings is a common practice, mulching is much more beneficial to your lawn. Mulching returns essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, back to the soil.

Removing only a small amount of the grass blade each time you mow produces shorter clippings that can decompose more quickly and discourages the development of fungus disease. Many mowers have mulching capabilities. If you do decide to bag, be sure to compost your clippings and reuse on site.

4. Ignoring the roots: A common mistake is managing only the parts of the lawn you can see. Caring for the grass roots and soil is one of the most important things you can do to ensure healthy year-round growth year.

Consider taking a soil sample and having a local university extension program or landscape supplier provide a soil analysis. The results will give a measure of fertility based on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels, and can help determine the best type of fertilizer to use throughout the year.

5. Blunt mower blades: A dull mower blade will shred grass blades, resulting in a poor quality of cut and potentially creating entryways for disease.

Keep the mower blade sharp for the best cut and to help promote a healthy turf. Also, be sure the blade is balanced to produce a clean cut and avoid damage to the mower.

With those tips in mind, your lawn should be one of the first things a home shopper notices when walking up to the front door. From there, let the rest of the house help make the sale.


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