Homeowners’ Association Horror Stories

Homeowners' Associations can be helpful, or prone to abuse and weird dynamics. Here's a roundup of HOAs run wild.

With close to 20 percent of American residential buildings governed by one of the more than 340,000 Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs), it’s no surprise there are plenty of horror stories about these organizations.

While it’s true a well-run HOA can make life safer and less stressful for residents and members, poor management can turn one into a vehicle for petty grievances and downright tyrannical policies.

Some of these stories will make you laugh and some will make you furious, but all hold lessons on how to protect yourself both as a homeowner and DIY enthusiast.

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swings home association
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The Scandalous Swing Set

The first of our horror stories takes place in 2013, when a family in Missouri installed a backyard swing set and finished the wood with a muted purple stain. They thought the finish would go nicely with the purples and reds of their trees in the fall.

Unfortunately, their HOA found it unacceptable. What followed was an escalating series of fines and letters threatening legal action and even jail time, all over a swing set color choice. Once the case actually got to court, the judge quickly ruled in favor of the homeowners, and they kept their swing set.

As mentioned in this Consumer Affairs write-up, the family celebrated with a victory barbecue, which was also attended by their neighbors — the very homeowners that the home association supposedly represented. The family in this story was able to stand up and fight. But if you belong to an HOA, then you may want to make sure your potential swing set project meets their criteria.

Here’s a list of 12 backyard swings everyone will enjoy. Just be sure to run them by your HOA before you start!

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Bureaucratic Nightmares

When Angela and Jason Mitchell’s home was destroyed in a fire, they knew it would take time to rebuild their lives. They never dreamed that it would take nine months to simply get their homeowners’ association to accept their new home’s design.

As detailed in this Houston Chronicle article, the disputes began over details as simple as brick color and devolved over time into increasingly open to interpretation HOA regulations.

Consult this article about preventing home fires to reduce the chances that you’ll ever have to deal with this kind of nightmare.

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Banning Support Animals

There are a number of recurring themes in many of the horror stories about homeowners’ association problems abuse. Sadly, one is how the victims of the HOA’s tactics tend to be among the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and infirm.

The Orlando Sentinel reported on the ongoing struggles of Robert Brady, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, to keep his dog, Bane. Although Brady lived in the complex for 45 years, and the Veterans Administration says the dog helps keep his mental-health issues in remission, the HOA states any dog weighing more than 35 pounds is prohibited. Bane weighs 40 pounds.

If this story makes you want to give your own dog or cat a little extra attention, here are 40 projects to show your pet some love.

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Flag Battles

Again, one of the parties in this story is an elderly veteran. Fred Quigley served in Korea and Vietnam, but he never ran into a problem flying the flag until he moved into a retirement home near Macedonia, Ohio.

When he installed a 15-foot flag pole, he quickly ran into a backlash from his HOA. It’s true the HOA requires any flags to be displayed from a stanchion attached to the home. But as is often the case in horror stories like this, the reaction seems to escalate, until the penalties are wildly out of sync with any supposed infraction.

The dispute between Quigley and his HOA soon appeared on the national news, and the home association eventually dropped its demand to remove the pole.

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houses home association
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Insane Legal Fees

The next horror stories comes from Fairfax, Virginia. And as is often the case, it begins with something small: a political yard sign that was four inches wider than the community rules allowed.

This small battle led to problems between the homeowners and the HOA over a roof and deck. The animosity and bickering escalated, resulting in a legal battle that eventually drained $400,000 from the HOA’s coffers.

Suddenly bankrupt, the HOA was forced to sell the large common area in the middle of the community that gave the community its name and served as its emotional heart. All because of a four-inch difference. There’s never been a better argument for knowing how to use a tape measure!

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fraud files
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Fraud and Embezzlement

Sometimes, homeowners’ associations struggle with outright fraud. A Florida couple who had been longtime officers of their homeowners’ association face dcharges of using more than $339,000 of HOA funds for personal expenses.

The most disturbing part of that case? All those funds came from the wages and savings of member homeowners who made regular monthly payments into the HOA. Unfortunately, their trust and good faith were ultimately betrayed.

Avoid being the subject of one of these horror stories by asking questions at your HOA meetings, and make sure the HOA books are audited. Much like theft-proofing your home, a little bit of vigilance can make fraudsters and crooks look for an easier target.

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komkrit Preechachanwate/Shutterstock

Negligence and Structural Issues

Another type of betrayal tends to occur in apartment and condo complexes when HOAs don’t perform their due diligence when paying for community maintenance.

Cutting corners keeps money in the pockets of the HOA in the short term, but postponing needed maintenance is always a losing game in the long run. Residents in a Kansas City neighborhood found out the hard way that their HOA dues weren’t being used to make needed repairs.

According to a whistleblower, the property management company failed to make proper repairs to building foundations and structural framing, choosing instead to bandage over the problems with a new coat of stucco. That, of course, added immense weight to already-weakened buildings. This placed residents and their belongings in danger of sudden failure.

There’s just no excuse for not repairing structural elements correctly!

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piggy bank homeowners association problems

Rainy Day Funds

Often the root cause of those corner cutting horror stories is a failure of the HOA to set aside enough rainy day funds to cover capital expenditures.

Sometimes it’s a condo or apartment complex where the HOA is involved with all exterior work, or a single-family home HOA that needs reserves to deal with common areas and administrative costs. If the cash isn’t available when it’s needed, it’s only a matter of time until the whole house of cards collapses. This problem is so prevalent, the Kansas City Star has posited that it may be the next housing crisis.

Although DIYers tend to think of different tasks for “rainy days,” the only solution for an HOA with insufficient funds is boosting fees homeowners need to contribute. That’s rarely popular and can cause a problem of its own: skyrocketing fees.

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Skyrocketing HOA Fees

Maybe it’s because of neglected maintenance coming home to roost, or maybe it’s because of legal fees stemming from what should have been a trivial by-law violation.

Whatever the reason, once an HOA falls into a financial hole, the only way out is tagging member homeowners with a one-time levy or with increased regular monthly fees. Hiked HOA fees can radically change the economics of buying a home in the community, as demonstrated in this Forbes article.

For homeowners who are living on limited means, even small fees can result in legal action, and attorney’s fees heaped on top of the pile. Add that to the many tiny home disasters waiting to happen, and it’s no wonder that many homeowners can’t stay afloat.

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foreclosure home association
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Once a homeowner falls behind on HOA dues, the association can proceed with a foreclosure. In some states, HOAs don’t even need to follow the same process as banks. It’s possible for a homeowner who owns a home free and clear to lose their home due to a tragically small amount.

The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors says homeowners foreclosed on by banks typically carry a debt of $190,000, according to a 2001 study by Sentinel Fair Housing. The same study found homeowners foreclosed on by HOAs owe an average of just $2,557.

An 83-year-old Houston woman owed her HOA $4,000. Her home was seized and sold for just $5,000. Almost all of that money went to pay the HOA attorney.

Not all HOAs are corrupt or incompetent. But there’s a reason researching a potential HOA membership is consistently listed as one of the ten things people regret overlooking when buying a home.

Dan Stout
Ohio-based freelance writer and author Dan Stout is a former residential remodeler, commercial site supervisor and maintenance manager. He’s worked on nearly all aspects of building and DIY including project planning and permitting, plumbing, basic electric, drywall, carpentry, tiling, painting and more. He also publishes noir fantasy thrillers, including The Carter Series, from Penguin imprint DAW Books.