It is often apparent, albeit after the fact, that new homeowners had no idea what they were getting into when they purchased property in a common interest development. They receive violation notices from management about the lawn ornaments they’ve installed in the common area, or they begin a renovation project without going through the architectural approval process, or they are parking one of their many extra vehicles in guest parking. They are headed for a life of dissatisfaction (with the association) and disharmony (with their neighbors, board of directors and management). The good news is, this is a curable disease! Here are some common sense steps to take, both by the association and by a potential buyer, to avoid ‘unhappy homeowner’ syndrome:
For Potential Buyers:
- Read the Governing Documents! Well, duh, you might say, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not!) at how many homeowners buy into a common interest development without ever having touched the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions. Yes, there are many pieces of paper to sign at a closing, so get around that by asking for the documents in advance of the closing (many states require that potential buyers be provided with all the governing documents before executing a Contract to Purchase). Pay particular attention to the Use Restrictions. Can you live with your neighbors telling you what colors you can paint your house? If not, this might not be the place for you.
- Look at the other homes in the community. Okay, you probably did this when you were thinking about whether to live here, but this time, look at them with an eye toward how well they are maintained, where the cars are parked, whether the common areas are well kept. This will give you an idea of the community standards you’ll be asked to live up to (hopefully not ‘down’ to!) How well does that sit with you? Does it match your own standards?
- Review the association’s financial statements. This is very important. This will give you a good idea what the community pays for and what services to expect. Moreover, you could be buying into a community that has not been collecting enough assessments for reserves, or that has experienced difficulty collecting assessments (what with foreclosures, unemployment, etc., being more prevalent nowadays), and you need to know this. Once you’re a member of a common interest development, you become inextricably intertwined with your fellow homeowners’ financial well-being. There is strength in numbers, but you need to be aware of what the numbers look like.
- Read the minutes. The association’s meeting minutes will give you a good idea about how the board of directors and management are running things. Are they too strict, or not strict enough? In other words, does their management philosophy fit in with your ideas about community living?
- Find out about the management company. Do the manager and the management company have a good reputation with the neighbors? Professionally managed communities have the training and resources to make community living a pleasure. Poorly managed communities can be, well, a nightmare to live in.
For association boards and managers:
- Prepare a Welcome Packet. A well-thought-out Welcome Packet can answer a lot of questions ahead of time – how does parking work, when/where do I pay assessments, how do I get a key to the pool. This will provide great information for new owners and residents, and save you headaches down the road. This is also a good time to ask for emergency contact information in a form they’d return.
- Send a ‘Welcome to the Community’ letter (which could be included in the Welcome Packet or sent separately). When a new owner or resident moves in, the manager or management company should send a letter of introduction, explaining the manager’s role, how to get in touch, what to do in emergencies, etc. Perhaps include copies of recent newsletters, and a business card or refrigerator sticker.
- Review your Disclosure Package. Make sure you’ve included all of the pertinent governing documents, etc. If there is something special about your community, consider making a separate flyer or notice that will stand out from the package and keep the new owner or resident from making a misstep. Like ‘No Overnight Parking in the Guest Areas’ to avoid unpleasant towing situations – that sort of thing.
- Create a Welcome Committee. If you can get some friendly volunteers to meet new homeowners and residents to orient them to the community and invite them to participate in community events or attend meetings, this will serve you well. It will be a great recruiting tool for future volunteers for one thing, and it’s always nice to be able to ask questions face-to-face when you’re new.
- Introduce new members in community communications. There’s nothing like seeing your name in print. Have your Welcome Committee provide information about new homeowners for the next community newsletter, of course with their permission (wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s ‘witness protection program’!) We’ve also introduced them at annual meetings, which is a big hit.
With some forethought on everyone’s part, you can avoid the ‘what have I done!’ syndrome and enjoy home ownership in a common interest development. Happy homeowners, happy board members, and happy management – yes, it’s possible!
Sharon Massingham, CCAM®
Massingham & Associates Management