Board of directors and management companies spend a lot of time talking about what a community association is but let us talk about what it is not. Now, there are exceptions to every rule, and you will find out what those exceptions are, that makes your community association stand out. Still, this article will describe, in general, real-world terms and what the expectations are of the membership of a community association.
Communicate Expectations. Community associations have expectations of EVERY homeowner who buys into it. Remember receiving those massive documents you “read” before closing on your new home? Those are, as you now know, the “governing documents” or rules that homeowners agree to abide by when they purchase a home in that community association. Realizing, however, that most people do not read these documents thoroughly or understand them, your community may consider adding a one-page letter at the beginning of documents that clearly and briefly lists association responsibilities versus homeowner responsibilities and/or what the expectations of the community are for its members.
A community association’s primary goal is for its members to maintain the individual lots or units and care for the common areas as they have a vested interest. It is important the property consistently remains attractive to new buyers as it ages, maintaining and eventually succeeding the purchase price! That is where YOU come in. For this to succeed, every member’s attention and cooperation is required. The next purpose for a community association is to instill a sense of community and neighborly relationships and pride. So how does all of that happen and what role does the homeowner play in making those goals come to life?
There are some general maintenance items that homeowners can do to support the association, such as picking up trash when noticed blowing around in the common areas. Owners have a vested interest in the community, so you should not wait for the porters, janitors, or groundskeepers to pick up debris when they may not be scheduled to come out anytime soon. If you are able, your help in keeping the community looking pristine for everyone’s enjoyment is appreciated! Many community associations participate in the Potomac Watershed Clean-up Day. This is a great opportunity to beautify the association and bring the community together. You can find out more information or sign up to participate at caidc.org.
Let’s talk inspections. Regular inspections of the community should be conducted by either Management or a committee to ensure homes comply and to help keep up the appearance of the community and property values. There are weekly inspections that look at items such as, trash containers left out and/or yard maintenance; and then there are annual inspections that look at items such as, deteriorating, or unkempt components of the home, siding and stoops that need power washing, roofs that need soft washing, trim/doors/windows that need painting, fences in need of repair and/or staining, etc. Prior to conducting an annual inspection, the Association should give owners a heads up of when the inspections will occur and what will be reviewed. The goal is to get owners to comply ahead of time so less violation letters need to be sent.
The board, covenants committee, and management know that the members do not move into a community association intending to violate the governing documents, but inevitably, homeowners may receive a violation letter regarding something on their lot or in their home that is out of compliance. It may come with a photo of the violation and will explain the exact rule of the association this matter violates. Whether your association wants to take a soft or stern approach in the language used in the letter, the goal of the association should be to gain the cooperation of the recipient and work with them to get the violation resolved swiftly. Perhaps, add language that suggests if more time is needed, they should reach out to the association and/or the management company to bring forward a request for an extension.
Those tasked with the operation of the association understand weather and wallet limitations. If the request is reasonable, most boards or committees are willing to either work with the owner or negotiate terms for compliance.
Another essential point that each homeowner needs to understand is that officers of the Board, committees, and any other agent of the association may have accessed their lot to inspect for violations, consider architectural modification applications, or confirm modifications are complete. This means that the association agents may enter property at any time (in most cases without notice), take photos of their home, and document anything that pertains to the association’s business. It should be communicated that homeowners are encouraged to be understanding of this process and provide easy access and cooperation.
Let’s talk lot maintenance. Homeowners are responsible for meeting the association’s lot maintenance expectations (or otherwise HIRE someone if needed). These are general rules that can be communicated via the associations’ website, newsletters, or email blasts. Do not assume that if you state it once, people will recall each rule. Remember, every association has its quirks, but most communities could communicate the following:
- Keep trees on the lot near sidewalks elevated to six feet and the trunk and roots clear of “suckers”. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining the health and eventual removal of any tree on their lot. Trim tree limbs to be clear of the roof and building façade by ten feet.
- Regularly clean gutters! Especially if there are trees around the home.
- Water should flow freely across properties. Please be mindful when customizing the parcel of where the water is going to go. In some jurisdictions it is illegal to direct water onto another property or common area. I have seen neighbors unwittingly flood their neighbor’s homes and yards by positioning new flowerbeds, fences, and other structures on the lot. Keep in mind that even if the new structures are approved and later cause an unforeseen negative impact, accommodating adjustments will have to be made.
- In most cases, homeowners are responsible for the water pipe that runs under the home, through the lawn, crossing sidewalks, and into the street to the main water valve. Yes! All those pipe insurance letters in the mail are accurate. Now, whether that is a good investment is up to each homeowner to decide! If the association covers these pipes, its best to communicate this to the members and ensure your community has proper insurance coverage should the pipes fail.
- Most associations still require the maintenance of grass lawns that are thick with growth and free of weeds. Owners should ensure that lawns do not grow over five inches at any time, whether permitting. Industry professionals recommend that at each mowing, only remove the top 1/3 of the grass blade. Consequently, a good time to mow is when the grass is 3 2/3
If it is the associations’ practice to mow individual lots if they are not adequately maintained and owners are to be billed back, this information should be communicated, and the hearing process should be followed. Consult legal counsel to confirm proper protocols are being followed. Associations who do not have authority in their documents to perform self-help have the option of reporting the issue to the County authorities for non-compliance.
- Edge the lawn around the foundation and flower beds, sidewalks, and driveway. The foundation and flower beds must be regularly mulched and weeded. Keep shrubbery trimmed so as not to cover windows, walkways, driveways, or address numbers. Let it be a compliment to the architecture of the structure, not covering it up!
- Members are responsible for the actions of their pets and adherence to local leash laws and pet waste removal.
- Members are responsible for the actions of their guests while within the association, its common areas, facilities, and amenities.
- When members rent/use the association facilities, they are responsible for cleaning up after themselves and any potential damages caused by their household or guests.
- Modifications to the exterior (if single family or townhome) and interior (if condo) require approval by the association.
- Some homeowners have public sidewalks crossing their lot with what is called an easement. In most cases, members ARE responsible for shoveling the sidewalks after a snowfall. After a snowfall, members are also responsible for shoveling out the parking space their vehicle occupied in the community lot. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the association’s vendor will do the shoveling of the spaces because the governing documents may be unclear. It would be prudent for the association to clarify and inform owners of this ahead of time.
Let us now define what constitutes an Emergency Call. We have a saying in the industry that you may have heard: Fire, Flood, or Blood. The only reason that members should be reporting an emergency after hours is if there is a FIRE, if there is a FLOOD, or if there is BLOOD in areas that the association is responsible. A flood is considered something beyond a leak that residents can manage with a collection bucket overnight or the weekend, a water spot on the ceiling, or an overflowing toilet. It is a constant flow of water that is causing significant damages to the home. Note, this is typically applicable only to condominium unit owners – single family and townhome owners typically are responsible for their own FLOODS.
There are many systems on each lot or in each unit that the homeowner is responsible for maintaining a prevention management program for and is ultimately accountable for the repair or replacement. These include, but are not limited to, the HVAC system, roof and roof vents, sump pump, hot water heater, washer and dryer and appropriate ducts, dryer vents, plumbing health, cleaning the chimney, and maintenance and replacement of the garage doors and their mechanisms. Homeowners are responsible for winterizing any exterior faucets of their home. Many homeowners in a community association are also responsible for maintaining the exterior lighting, lamp posts, and mailboxes (unless they are cluster mailboxes). Whatever your community’s quirks are, communication to owners is key!
Let’s talk money and risk management. Properly maintaining the association requires money from the membership, therefore, on time payments are necessary to operate. The association must be diligent in communicating to delinquent owners the need for their timely payment. Review your collection process and be mindful when you need to treat situations on a case-by-case basis. For example, many people were impacted by the COVID pandemic, this has resulted in some owners needing to either defer their assessment or submitting a payment plan for board approval.
Educate the members on what insurance the association has in place and who it protects. Ensure your community understands what, if any, insurance they need to protect their property (even if there isn’t a mortgage company). If the property burns down and there is not adequate coverage, this could be an issue. In most cases, homeowners will need to insure any resident or guest accidents on the property and catastrophic damages done to the structures on the site.
Finally, some support! The most important thing that the members are responsible for is participation in and support of the association. Encourage owners to attend board meetings, participate in community events, and perhaps even serve on the board or a committee. Invite members to speak up when they have a question or concern. Encouraging members to participate can also assist with recruiting more volunteers! Members should also feel the support of their community leaders and management.
By Bethany Morales, CMCA
Bethany is a veteran in the community management industry. She serves multiple communities as a portfolio manager for Cardinal Management Group, Inc. She is a Washington Capitals fan, wife and mother, HOA Member, and shoulder to cry on.