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Homeowners are the association

HOAs: Good communication keeps homeowners and board on same page

Posted: February 19, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 19, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Watson (pointing), discusses more maintenance issues during a property inspection.

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I remember when I first bought a home in a development that had a homeowners association. I was a little leery of the possible restrictions, having grown up where our neighbors didn’t mind if we shot rabbits and squirrels on our front lawn.

But the developer’s agents assured me the HOA would help my property maintain and increase its value. As it turned out, they were right, and the restrictions really weren’t that restrictive — well, except for the time the HOA made me clean the oil stains from my driveway.

HOAs in the SCV
Homeowners associations are a fact of life for many people in the SCV, and they seem to work out pretty well, for the most part. But there will always be individuals and situations that cause conflict between homeowners and their associations. With that in mind, we turn to an expert on this topic, Brad Watson, managing director of Property Management Professionals LLC.

PMP is a residential property-management company specializing in community association management in the SCV.

“I’m all about bringing homeowners and HOA board members together,” Watson said. “As a management company, we feel personally responsible to bring that about. We want to make sure the SCV is the premier place to live in Los Angeles County.” And he added, “It starts in our local neighborhoods and in our associations. We need to make sure the relationships between homeowners and their associations are productive to meet that goal. It’s my goal.”

And, the key to accomplishing that goal, according to Watson, is good communication between homeowners, their
management company and their HOA board members.

You ARE the HOA
“As homeowners, you are the association,” Watson said. “It’s just like with any government. You don’t have time to run things, so you elect your neighbors (to the HOA board) to represent you. So the relationships should not be contentious.”

However, Watson agreed these relationships often can be contentious.

“The biggest misunderstanding is the board meeting, itself,” Watson said. “It’s just what it says, a meeting for the board to conduct business.”

He explained that these board meetings do provide brief forums for homeowners, but mainly the open meetings are for homeowners to observe the board conducting its business. And when time limits to the forums shut homeowners down, they get upset.

Management
The solution, according to Watson, is for the homeowners to bring their issues to the association’s property-management company as they arise, rather than stewing on them until the next board meeting.

“A management company should serve as a conduit to the board,” Watson said. “I always encourage homeowners to contact their management company so that they (I) can bring things to the attention of the board.” And he added, “You should be able to call me and say, ‘Hey, Brad, this tree is dying.’ I can contact the landscaper and get it fixed.”

He said that your management company is there to run day-to-day operations on the HOA property and oversee maintenance. With good communication between homeowners and the management company, the management company should be able to resolve issues, such as landscaping and pool maintenance, quickly.

Communication
Watson explained that when minor issues are resolved quickly, homeowners are happy and have no need to involve the board. It’s only when things have boiled over that contentious situations occur at board meetings.

“If you are a volunteer on the board of directors, the last thing you want is to show up to your monthly board meeting and see a slot of angry homeowners with pitchforks and fire,” he quipped.

When questioned about maintenance issues involving large expenditures, Watson said that the HOA board definitely has to approve those before they can be resolved. But he added that issues usually don’t become large when taken care of in a timely fashion.

For instance, seeing that broken sprinklers are repaired quickly helps prevent the need for huge re-plantings when all the landscaping dies back.

On the flip side, Watson said that the management company can help resolve issues when homeowners have gone astray of the HOA rules. He used my driveway oil stains as an example.

“As the management guy, I can call the homeowner ahead of the board sending him a letter,” Watson said. This personal communication can cool things down and allow a solution to be worked out. A letter from the board has a contentious feel to it, he said.

Relationships
“Our job is to make the association look good,” Watson said.  The homeowners need to be happy, the board needs to function well and the association needs to function well. If the management company isn’t representing the board properly, they are going to look bad, and that’s the truth.”

Watson outlined the relationships that must be maintained well for an HOA to function properly:

(1) The HOA board has the fiduciary duty to the association members to conduct regular board business of the association and ensure proper maintenance of common areas. (2) The homeowners have the responsibility to review, understand and abide by the rules and guidelines set forth in the association’s governing documents. (3) The management company has the responsibility to conduct day-to-day business activities of the association and oversee proper maintenance of common areas is executed pursuant to the landscaper’s contract with the HOA.

The management company also has the responsibility of properly servicing the homeowner as well.

In regard to the homeowner’s responsibility, Watson said each homeowner should understand his governing documents, which include Bylaws, CC&Rs and Rules and Regulations. He noted that the Rules and Regulations are very important because they are more specific and are easier to update and change.

“Homeowners always forget to review the Rules and Regulations,” he said. “I would also review any separate policies regarding parking, visitors or pool visitors,” he added.

He said you can ask your management company for any of these documents. “Ask if they can send them electronically, so there will be no charge.”

And the homeowner should never forget that the CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) are “absolutely legally enforceable” by the HOA. They are actually part of the title report on your home purchase — as important as the deed to your property.

“When you buy that home, when the deed is granted to you, you are accepting these governing documents,” Watson said. “If there is a contentious situation, it could be because you didn’t read your documents. You didn’t read that you couldn’t park your El Camino on your grass or put a pool in your front yard.”

Are dues up?

Watson said that, typically, the more homes you have in a development, the lower dues will be to each homeowner.

But in any case, homeowners often question where their dues are going, especially when their association doesn’t have a pool, tennis courts or clubhouse. But maintaining landscaping is very expensive, he said, especially landscaping on hillsides.

He added that many HOAs must maintain their private streets, and the infrastructure below them, as well.

Watson noted that, in these tough economic times, homeowners associations are often struggling to maintain finances.

Foreclosures and homeowners who are having trouble paying their dues reduce association income.

Consequently, homeowners associations may have to reduce expenses and increase dues.

Reduce expenses
Watson explained one way to reduce expenses is for the management company to go out and get new bids for maintenance, especially landscape maintenance.

“These days you should be able to go out and bid and get pretty competitive prices for maintenance,” he said. But that is a lot of work and many management companies don’t want to do it.

He gave an example of an HOA, with contracts that hadn’t been bid out since 2005, seeing a significant reduction in costs when the contracts were bid out recently.

“We’re seeing up to a 40 percent savings,” he said.

If you are having trouble paying your HOA dues, and when you’ve run afoul of your Rules and Regulations, Watson suggests you contact your management company right away to find a solution. “If you pick up the phone, the majority of the time the association will work with you,” he said. “If you don’t, they have plenty of legal authority backing their enforcement.”

More communication
Watson noted that, when it comes to making large changes to your property, you need to give the board’s architectural committee plenty of time to review your proposals. “With an association, it is NOT better to do it and ask for forgiveness later. They have the legal authority to make you remedy it,” he said. “Plan ahead.”

Watson summarized the homeowners association arrangement by emphasizing what he had said before. “Everyone needs to play their part. If you don’t have that happening, you have a contentious situation. Communication is the foundation for a successful association,” he said. “When in doubt, don’t guess. Call you manager,” he said. And that applies to delinquencies, rule violations or problems with other homeowners. “Call us about everything short of crime,” he said. “ For crime, call 911.”

Property Management Professionals is located at 27413 Tourney Road, Suite 100, Valencia, CA 91355. The phone number is (661) 295-4900 and the website is www.pmprofessionalsllc.com.

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