Love Thy Neighbor
Karen B. Jones
Editor’s note: The author serves on an HOA board.
Lovely expanses of undulating emerald green lawns preferably cut in a crosshatch pattern with grass blades not exceeding 2.5 inches. The sound of sprinkler systems singing their ch, ch, ch irrigation song as they water tastefully landscaped yards and pruned trees. A vista of well-maintained homes whose exterior color palettes harmoniously blend and don’t wander too far from the cream, brown or gray spectrum.
This is the Homeowner Association (HOA) dream scenario. Leawood realtor Kelly Esposito calls it “keeping up the integrity of the subdivision.” Others call it creating beauty from sameness. Still others are not so kind.
Esposito has been selling homes in Johnson County for almost 15 years, and she credits the abundance of local homeowners associations for maintaining the property values of the area.
“Some people may not like the covenants and deeds restrictions,” she says, “but the one thing they do very well is maintain or increase the price of your home.”
Bob Pollock, Leawood South Homes Association president, spends a lot of time, more than he ever thought he would, “educating neighbors” about the deeds restrictions, fencing no-nos, the evils of lime green paint, conflicts arising from home-based businesses, and more.
“It amazes me how few people bother to read the covenants and deeds restrictions before they move in or undertake a major project on their home,” he says. “It’s our job as the HOA board to make sure everyone is in compliance whether they like it or not.”
And a lot of times people don’t like it, especially when they think an HOA board is being too restrictive, or when the previous board overlooked something a new board sees as a problem.
Pollock says, “An HOA is only as good as their board, and each board has their own personality. You can have a board that was very lenient and then a new one comes in and really starts enforcing the deed restrictions.”
That’s what happened to one former Hallbrook resident who was equally surprised and ticked off when she received what she calls a “$250 fine” (HOA speak: a design review application fee) for failing to get permission before cutting off a tree limb that was about to drop into a neighbor’s yard.
“Who would have thought you had to get permission to act responsibly?” she says. “And I’m still curious as to what they do with the $250 ‘application fee’ they charge residents. We even had to get permission and pay an HOA fee to put a swing set in our backyard, and that’s on top of our homeowner’s dues.”
SPEAKING OF AGENDAS...
There’s a joke that HOA stands for Harassment Often Awful, and it’s not hard to find someone who has felt bullied for what they perceived were very picky interpretations of the rules. One former Kansas City HOA board member, who asked not to be identified, reports being bullied by her own board president about lawn modifications.
“The new president had her own agenda,” the former member says, “and basically if you didn’t agree with her then she would do whatever she could to get rid of you. I got harassing emails and angry phone calls where she would scream at me over landscaping. It didn’t take long before I quit because who in their right mind is going to put up with that for a volunteer position?”
While an HOA board can have its share of screamers, according to Wade Thompson, code enforcement officer for the City of Leawood, the real tyrants are neighbors ratting out each other, even though their concerns are usually HOA issues and not the city’s concern. The top three complaints he gets concern PRP: paint, roofing and parking.
“Almost always, the HOA code is more restrictive and supersedes the city’s,” Thompson says. “That said, we do investigate and work hand in hand with the HOA’s, but I’m always reminding residents and HOA boards that the city does not enforce HOA codes.”
Some HOAs get weary of being the bad guys and resort to paid enforcers in the form of property management companies.
Michael Stanclift, president of the Woodlands Park Homes Association in Shawnee, says the Woodlands Park board in May voted to hand over day-to-day operations to just such a company.
“I’m really looking forward to having a neutral party do the triage and arbitrate that kind of stuff,” Stanclift says. “It’s really, really uncomfortable to have to go over to your neighbor and tell him that people have been complaining about his grass.”
Jim Tiehen, president of the Tiehen Group, which provides association management for many area HOAs, says enforcing deeds restrictions is the most time-consuming and emotional part of their job.
“Some people think the HOA is being mean or just too picky,” Tiehen says, “but the homes association provides protection and keeps up the values of the community.”
Those values don’t come cheap. Area HOA annual dues start in the low hundreds and can top $3,000.
Vicki Mooney has been selling homes for three decades and says she’s never once had a buyer balk at the cost of HOA dues.
“I believe most people think they’re worth it,” she says. “I’m selling a home right now where the dues are $1,450 a year, and it’s not an issue, especially when the subdivision has private roads to maintain.”
But if an owner balks at paying the dues, there can be legal hell to pay; an HOA has the legal right to place a lien on a home. First, many HOAs try public humiliation. It can start with trash being bypassed on pickup day, followed by the delinquent owner’s address appearing in the HOA newsletter under “Dues Not Paid.”
For many HOAs, dues have to be in arrears for at least six months to a year before they’ll resort to a lien. This financial area can be a minefield for board members, and some find it caustic and vindictive.
However, Bob Pollock says, as an HOA president, he’s not the least bit wary of taking legal action.
“It’s in our bylaws that if someone is not in compliance, then we have no choice but to do everything in our power to make them comply,” he says. “You can’t have qualms about filing liens or civil lawsuits. It’s your job.”
As a last resort, if you cant’s stand, or beat, your board, you can join it. Most of them need more volunteers, and getting elected usually doesn’t take much effort.
As Stanclift says, “The only difference between a homeowner and an HOA board member is one of them went to a meeting.”