As people plan ahead for retirement, they often think about downsizing – and that often means selling the large, old family home and moving into a low-maintenance condo or a planned senior community. Those can be terrific options for seniors looking for the dream of carefree living. But be careful: that type of home typically comes with monthly homeowners association dues, and if you fall behind, your dream could turn into a nightmare.
Homeowners Associations Get Tough on Delinquent Residents
We just read a disturbing article on this subject in the January-February 2019 issue of the AARP Bulletin. (You’ll find the online version here.) The article describes what seems to be a growing trend in which homeowners associations (HOAs) are starting to get tough on residents who fall behind on their dues, sometimes sending residents to collection agencies and tough-minded lawyers, and even causing people to lose their homes over relatively small delinquencies. As the AARP article states, “In a trend that has grown recently, when homeowners are late paying assessments or fines, their accounts are turned over to law firms. In these cases, legal fees can quickly outpace the size of the original debt. In the worst cases, homes are lost to foreclosure, sometimes sold at auction for little more than the outstanding debt.”
Before we dive further into this troubling story, let’s turn to this article from the Realtor.com website for some perspective on life in an HOA. “HOA is an abbreviation for ‘homeowners association,’ which applies to the owners of condos, townhouses, or freestanding homes in a planned community. The fee, which is usually charged monthly, goes to maintain the common areas of that community.” These “common areas” typically include landscaping, elevators, swimming pools, clubhouses, parking garages, fitness rooms, sidewalks, security gates, roofing, and building exteriors, plus related insurance premiums. Realtor.com says that, for a typical single-family home, “HOA fees can cost homeowners around $200 to $300 per month, although they will be lower or much higher depending on the size of your unit and the amenities.” The website mentions one luxury highrise in Hollywood, California, where HOA dues can run as high as $4,000 monthly!
(HOA dues are not the same as special assessments, which are charges that can be levied against each property owner in a development to cover major emergencies. If the roof fails or a burst pipe causes major damage – more than the HOA reserve and insurance can handle – your HOA board will likely be coming to you and your fellow residents with a large bill in hand. This is something else to consider before you buy.)
70 Million Live Under a Homeowners Association
We were very surprised to learn just how common homeowners associations, also referred to as community associations or CAs, actually are. “The number of community associations in the United States grew from 10,000 in 1970 and 222,500 in 2000 to 344,500 in 2017,” says AARP. Today nearly 70 million Americans live in homes that are part of an HOA. That means a growing number of people, many of them seniors, may unwittingly be buying into single-family homes and condos where they will be governed by rules they may not fully understand and consequences for delinquency that they may not adequately grasp. In the words of the AARP article, “homeowners who wind up in conflict with their CA say the organizations have a dark side.”
The article cites some scary examples. One Tampa woman “learned the hard way that dealing with a homeowners association can escalate into a costly and years-long legal battle.” She fell $700 behind on her HOA dues a few years ago due to financial hardship, and she asked her homeowners association board if she could work out a payment plan. Two months later, instead of a response from her board, she got a letter from a law firm saying that a lien had been filed on her home. A three-year legal battle ensued during which this woman has now run up more than $10,000 in attorney fees, interest and other charges. Still, she refuses to give in. “I refuse to bend because it’s not right,” she told AARP. “It’s cruel that they are aiming to put me out of my home.”
Small Delinquencies Generate Huge Legal Fees
One Florida attorney explained that law firms typically charge HOAs no fees: instead, they pass on legal fees to the homeowner. “That’s an incentive for the firm to escalate charges,” says AARP. “A single missed payment can add up to thousands of dollars in a few months. Lawyers are expensive and stakes are high. Many homeowners just pay up, even if they think the charges are unfair.” Other homeowners lose everything because of delinquencies, such as a South Carolina couple cited by AARP who lost their home over a $3,800 debt. Fortunately, an attorney was able to defend the couple and the sale was vacated, but homes can often be lost for good. One Philadelphia man, 64 years old, eventually filed for bankruptcy after running up $55,000 in delinquent HOA dues and legal fees. In Houston, a legal aid service has helped keep 27 older homeowners from HOA-related foreclosure since 2010.
At AgingOptions, we share this article not to cause alarm but to raise an important issue. Most homeowners associations are made up of volunteers trying to do a good, fair job – and most people living in an HOA will never have any issues. However, before you purchase a single-family home or condo that’s part of an HOA, do your homework. Read the terms carefully and make certain you know exactly what the dues cover and what will happen in the event of delinquency. Find out how conflicts with the HOA board are resolved. Then when and if you move in, you can do so with greater peace of mind, knowing what to expect.
Retire with Greater Peace of Mind
Our goal at AgingOptions is to help you retire with that same sense of peace of mind, which is why Rajiv Nagaich pioneered the comprehensive planning process called LifePlanning. “No matter how old you are or what your circumstances,” he emphasizes, “a solid retirement plan is the answer to dispelling fear of the unknown. A LifePlan can show you the way forward toward a better retirement than you thought possible.” Only a LifePlan from AgingOptions weaves together, not just your long-term housing strategy, but all the essential elements that matter most, including legal protection, financial planning, health preservation and family communication. With a LifePlan prepared, fear of the future can be replaced with confidence and a sense of security.
If you’re ready to find out more, we invite you to join Rajiv at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar – a great way to begin the retirement planning journey. To see a calendar of these popular free events, visit our Live Events page and register for the location that works for you. It will be our pleasure to greet you and to share with you and your loved ones the power of an AgingOptions LifePlan. Age on!
(originally reported at www.aarp.org)