By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Now here’s a good question that comes up over and over again, whenever a homeowners’ association horror story circulates in the news and across social media.
And, if you read comment threads, you will inevitably see the typical responses: “I would never buy a home in an HOA,” plus the ever common “didn’t you know about the rules before you bought the house/moved in?”
But these commenters assume that the home buyer had a choice among scores of properties without the bureaucracy of restrictive covenants and considerable added expense of mandatory association governance.
As someone who researches and follows HOA/condo/coop issues nationwide, I can tell you that, in some of the fastest growing real estate markets in the U.S., a buyer’s options to avoid an association-governed community is severely limited.
For example, for several years, my husband and I lived in the Daytona Beach area of Florida (Volusia and Flagler Counties). Having owned two homes previously, both of them fixer-uppers, we had a few criteria for our next home: it had to be move-in ready, it had to be within a half-hour commute to work, and, given Florida’s location, the home had to have modern hurricane safety construction, and sit high and dry out of the flood zone.
For readers unfamiliar with coastal Counties of Central and Northern Florida, here’s a summary.
Much of the Sunshine State consists of homes built since the 1970s, and, in Florida, virtually every home built since the early 1970s is HOA. (That doesn’t count the many thousands of condos and co-ops that exist everywhere in Florida.)
Certain “old Florida” mid-century and earlier construction homes do not have to answer to an HOA. But most of these homes are located in a run-down or unsafe neighborhood, or a location that chronically floods, a casualty of decades of local government disinvestment.
Other older homes that are well-located along the Atlantic coast have been torn down and replaced by condos, bed and breakfast homes, or McMansions. If you move a few blocks inland, you may find a handful of older neighborhoods with ranch homes from the 1950s and 1960s, homes that were once probably seasonal winter vacation homes. Now these neighborhoods have morphed into a mix of owner-occupied and investor-owned properties (AirBnb, VRBO, and HomeAway rentals). Unless you’re interested in cashing in on the short-term rental craze, you’ll probably want to steer clear of these noisy, somewhat rowdy neighborhoods.
And, of course, even if you can find a truly residential neighborhood, most older homes don’t have strapped down roofs or reinforced concrete block construction. It’s prohibitively expensive to retrofit an older home with hurricane resistant features, and the cost to insure these properties that don’t meet modern safety code is high.
In short, in the area where we were home shopping, there were literally NO options in our price range that met our basic requirements and that were NOT association-governed.
I communicate with people all over the country who complain about the same conditions in their real estate markets, too. Most of them are located in Southern and Western States. But in Northern and Midwestern states, many urban and suburban areas are saturated with deed restricted planned subdivisions, as well as townhouse and condo association.
So, can a home buyer still avoid the HOA?
Yes, but only if you can be flexible about where you’re willing to live.
In contrast to the HOA mecca of Central Florida, we now live in Central Pennsylvania. And in this portion of the state, HOAs were late to arrive, and are therefore, relatively easy to avoid if you’re willing to buy a home of pre-1995 construction.
If you’re home shopping in the area, you’ll find that the majority of in-town housing that has been built since the mid-1990s is part of a developer-constructed subdivision with the mandatory HOA. There are generally two categories of newer housing: expensive and very large estate homes OR modest, bare bones townhouses. Either way, you’ll find there’s mandatory-membership HOA, or, worse, a condominium association!
And that’s another common misconception. Not all condos are apartment-style units that are individually owned. The growing trend across the U.S. is development of townhouse and even detached single family homes that are legally classified as condominiums. In other words, there’s no private ownership of land, except perhaps the small piece of dirt under your home’s foundation.
To the uneducated buyer, a neighborhood can look like a planned community with an HOA, or even a non-HOA neighborhood. Looks can be deceiving.
Here in Central Pennsylvania, as in other parts of the country, there are still some infill lots or small neighborhoods where landowners (usually former farmers) have split off parcels and subdivided into lots. There, if you are lucky, you can still build a new home and avoid the HOA. But these are in very short supply, and mostly available only to buyers in the higher price ranges for this market.
Of course, if you live in a big city, you either rent, or you own a condo or coop. You have no other choices. Personally, I say it’s better to rent than “own” a condo or coop. Why? Because owning a condo or coop obligates you to maintain your unit and contribute your share to common maintenance. You’ll be paying thousands of dollars each year for stuff that would normally be paid by the landlord.
Plus, you must live with many of the same restrictions as a tenant — quite often even more picky and petty rules and restrictions. And if you don’t obey the rules, things can get ugly very fast. Your condo association might even force you out of your home. Never underestimate the influence and power of a Condo Commando!
And remember that even tenants often end up in a condo, especially when there aren’t enough traditional rental apartments in the market to meet demand.
So, depending on your market, location requirements, and housing needs, it may be next to impossible to avoid the HOA, condo, or coop.
And that’s why each association-governed community has its substantial share of residents who bristle at the rules. Many residents and homeowners begrudgingly “chose” the HOA life, because they really had little other choice.