In neighbor vs. neighbor disputes involving homeowners associations, N.C. law gives the HOAs most of the power.
But not all.
To be sure, HOAs are legally armed to enforce the letter of their neighborhood laws — from what kind of mailbox you can have to the type of fencing you can wrap around your yard.
The boards can suspend your pool privileges, fine you up to $100 a day for chronic violations, or even unleash the nuclear option of foreclosing on your home.
Charlotte attorney Mike Hunter says HOAs serve a basic purpose: They are charged with taking care of the pools, trails, landscaping and other shared amenities; they preserve the architectural integrity and character of their communities by enforcing covenants and other rules; and they are supposed to keep a neighborhood attractive and vital, thus increasing property values.
“The laws work well,” says Hunter, who estimates his firm represents more than 500 HOA boards across the Carolinas. “They give HOAs the tools they need to function effectively, yet also provide important protections for homeowners.”
But when a board oversteps its authority — and even Hunter admits to sometimes admonishing HOAs “who think they have more power than they actually do” — homeowners often are outgunned.
“The board is the ultimate authority until the disputes move to a place of higher authority, which is the courts,” says James Galvin, a Charlotte attorney who has represented homeowners in their legal fights with HOAs for close to two decades. “But you’re talking $5,000, $10,000, up to $30,000 to file a lawsuit.”
HOAs, on the other hand, can use a property owner’s own neighborhood dues to help cover its legal costs.
However, Hunter and Galvin agree that there are some steps homeowners can take to even up a fight.
1. Don’t ignore the HOA election
Hunter and Galvin agree: Neighborhoods that don’t pay attention to who’s running for the HOA board can soon regret it.
“Know who you’re putting in charge,” Galvin says. Do the prospective board members want to do what’s best for their neighbors or are they more interested in wielding power?
Hunter puts it this way: “Occasionally, a property owner has an ax to grind or is running for the board to pursue a personal agenda. You don’t want people like that serving on your HOA board.”
Thus, one of the best ways to avoid HOA problems is to keep problematic autocrats from reaching the board and causing them.
2. Stuck with a bad HOA board? Vote it out
In the case of replacing HOA leadership, democracy takes some legwork, but it’s not that hard.
In a 100-home development, for example, it only takes a petition signed by as few as 10 residents (10%) to call a special meeting of the HOA board for the purposes of replacing a board member, the entire board or even amending the neighborhood rules.
That’s the easy part. Once the meeting is scheduled, homeowners have to show up.
A quorum of the neighborhood’s residents has to be on hand to conduct legal business. That can range from 20% to 40% of property owners, depending on the neighborhood bylaws. If a quorum gathers — say it’s 20% of our hypothetical 100-home development — a simple majority of 11 votes can oust the board or a targeted member.
“Neighborhoods are creatures of democracy,” says Hunter. “If you don’t like your elected leaders, vote them off.”
3. Know your rights
If the board accuses you of a neighborhood violation, it cannot suspend your pool or clubhouse privileges or start fining you without first holding a hearing.
HOAs, according to Hunter, also are required to have regular, advertised open meetings in which residents can ask questions or raise concerns. At the end of each fiscal year, boards are also required to make financial statements available to all residents.
“Communication is the key. The most transparent boards have the happiest owners,” Hunter says.
“But then you have a board that is not communicative, doesn’t hold meetings, doesn’t put out financial statements — some boards run their associations like a fiefdom — secrecy breeds contempt and suspicions.”
A case in point: Galvin says he’s currently representing a group of Charlotte homeowners who have overwhelmingly collected the signatures necessary that require the board to call a special meeting. But the board is refusing to do so.
He says the residents want to replace the board due to a long-running dispute over the neighborhood policy governing the installation of solar panels. Now, Galvin says, he will be forced to go to court for an order requiring the board to follow its rules and schedule the special meeting.
“They’re drunk on power,” Galvin says of that HOA. “They’re clinging onto power for a few more months.”
4. Remember, they’re your neighbors
Sometimes HOAs and residents go to the mattresses — like when Charlotte condo owner Dan Johnson was hit with a cumulative $182,500 fine for a drapes violation five years after he moved in — when a more congenial approach might have been more effective.
Hunter says he preaches HOA boards to keep disputes in perspective. “The punishment should fit the crime,” he says. “Too many cases just don’t justify a $100-a-day fine.”
Likewise, Galvin says, “Finding out your neighbor’s favorite brand of bourbon and drinking some with them may be more effective than hiring me.
“Go get a drink and talk about it. A relational solution is always better, more cost-effective and more enduring than a legal one.”
Galvin also preaches patience. He says he represented a Charlotte woman who inherited her dead mother’s dog to go with the one she already had. Except, her HOA had passed a rule limiting pet ownership to one canine per household. And it began fining her $100 a day, $3,000 a month.
Galvin said he advised her to wait it out, which she did, and the HOA eventually backed off.
She kept both dogs.
5. HOA neighborhood or not?
Some residents, like Charlotteans Terry DeBoo and Stephen Eldridge, have lived in at least one HOA-run development and won’t be seeking another.
“I told the real estate agent, ‘Don’t even show me anything in anything in an HOA,’” says Eldridge, who now lives near Cotswold after unhappy experiences with two previous HOA-controlled residences. “I’m never dealing with anything like that again.”
Other neighborhoods have thrived under the combination of HOA control and the booming real estate markets in most Carolina cities.
So before you buy in a particular neighborhood, ride around. Is the grass cut? Are the hostas in the community gardens watered?
Talk to the people who live there. What are their experiences with their HOA boards and management companies? Read the neighborhood rules. Understand what you can and can’t do.
Are the amenities — the pools, trails and playgrounds — worth what you’ll be paying in fees?
Or will you be chafing under a board that can dictate your paint choices, your landscaping and whether you hang drapes or not.
DeBoo has made her choice. The former Chicago transplant describes her experience in her former south Charlotte neighborhood — one of the first in the city with an HOA — as “years and years of the ridiculous.”
“I understand that some rules are necessary,” she says, “but most of the people who live in a neighborhood are going to be there to protect their own assets.”
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