Dealing with a HOA during construction (besides, is a condo right for you?)

Condos are not for everyone. They require a homeowner to adhere to a specific set of rules, sometimes arbitrary rules that make no sense to you. Most of the time, the rules exist to make sure everyone can live comfortably and coexist harmoniously. Say you have a bunch of kids skateboarding and yelling outside your home. Chances are, there are rules about when, where and how they can play. Have a neighbor that wants to paint their home pink? Sorry, there are guidelines about what color you can use. These are things you can’t control when you live in a regular home outside of a HOA, and it’s why many people enjoy living in a community where these things are controlled and regulated.

The downside: you pretty much need to get approval for everything other than painting your walls. These architectural rules vary from HOA to HOA, as well as how judiciously they enforce them, but in general they don’t like you making big remodeling changes without consulting them first. Mostly, they want to be aware of anything you’re doing in case something goes wrong in the future. They want to make sure other units aren’t affected by whatever changes you’re making and want to preserve the exterior look of the building. Seems fair, right?

Sometimes these approvals can get out of hand. And the bad news is you’re truly at their mercy. If you’re looking to buy a condo or currently have one and want to do some renovations, here are some tips:

1. Look at other units in the community. In general, if another homeowner has done something like add a washer & dryer, you probably can, too. In rare cases, they may not let you do it if they had problems with the previous installations. Have your realtor talk to the HOA manager about some of your proposed changes, specifically ones that require cutting holes in walls/roofs/floors. If you’re not seeing a lot of dryer vents or barbeques or back yard pools, they probably don’t allow them. Even trickier, someone in the management might say, “Yes! You can have a washer/dryer,” and then after you buy your unit and submit the proposal, the architectural committee might turn it down. It’s a risk with any HOA so it’s best to look for units that have every must-have on your wishlist.

2. Familiarize your contractor with the HOA’s policies. Hopefully you’ve found a contractor familiar with HOA’s and know what they’re looking for. If they’re not, show them the architectural approval process so they can provide you with the proper documentation. Simple drawings of your proposal will help them understand your plans.

3. Have you contractor clearly spell out their scope of work. A lot of times you’ll get an estimate from a contractor and it will be pretty brief. You and the contractor know that you’ll be adding new floors, but the HOA will want to see a clear description, such as “remove existing floors, add tile underlayment, add half inch tile, mastic and grout.” This description can get lengthy if you’re replacing a water heater or a bath tub. Better to be thorough so when they ask you why you need a new hole in the roof for the new vent for your new water heater, you’ve explained it to them.

4. BE NICE. The HOA Board and the management are the gatekeepers. They hold all the keys and if they decide to get angry, they can take it out on you. There are checks and balances to make sure this can’t happen but there are plenty of horror stories out there of HOA boards going on the warpath. So it’s best if you keep your cool and show that you’re simply trying to improve your unit and you’re willing to work within their parameters. In my experience, HOA documents, the board and the management can be very unclear. I had a situation where we needed to go on the roof to put on a new rain cap. I received four different answers from four different people on how to go about doing that. You can see how I might be frustrated! Getting angry isn’t going to help at all.

5. Talk to other homeowners. The management and the board might present a rosy view of the association, but the homeowners are in the same boat as yourself. Talk to other owners about renovations they’ve done and how they navigated the process. I’m almost positive they’ll have some unique insights since every renovation is unique.

6. Consider whether an HOA is right for you. If those rules about exterior paint colors and kids playing sound ridiculous, then maybe this cooperative living situation is not for you. And if you think you’re going to purchase a home, waltz in and change all the rules to suit your lifestyle, your chances of doing so are incredibly slim. Here’s a simple pros and cons list of HOA living:

Pros:

  • common areas are maintained. If you have a lot of landscaping or a community pool, the HOA is usually responsible for maintaining these areas. It’s part of your dues that you pay to the HOA every month. If you were living in a regular home, you’d be responsible for mowing the lawn, trimming the trees and cleaning the pool. Personally, I like that these chores are taken care of for me and would much rather cut a check than climb a 50 year old maple tree to cut away the dead foliage.
  • Rules are for “the greater good” for everyone in the community. If you’re not a fan of loud music, big parties, noisy neighbors or neglectful homeowners, the HOA is there to step in and enforce basic rules so everyone can enjoy their home. While there are city ordinances for loud noise and parties, I’m going to guess that it’s not high on the list of the LAPD’s priorities. In an HOA, they are taken seriously and you can be fined for violating the rules.

Cons:

  • aforementioned rules for “common good” may not suit you. Perhaps you like to crank up your music. Maybe your home is not complete without Chevron stripes on your front door. Maybe you like to grill outdoors every single day. Plain and simple: if you can’t abide by the rules, don’t even consider making a purchase. You’ll be unhappy and so will your other homeowners.
  • HOA dues: These can get pricey, especially if they’re going towards amenities that you don’t care about. Look at the HOA’s financials before you purchase and see how the money is being spent. If  you don’t approve with their choices, it might not be a good fit for you.

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