Last summer, I was awakened at 3:45 a.m. by the sound of a man and woman shouting obscenities outside my bedroom window. Unfortunately, this was not a novel experience. Since my husband and I had moved into our Eagan townhouse eight months earlier, I’d made multiple calls to the police about nighttime activity on our property. Once again, I gave my address to the operator; meanwhile, my husband peeled back the curtains — just in time to see a woman being asssaulted on our front lawn.

After several such calls, we contacted the company that managed our homeowners association (HOA) to request that motion lights be installed near the grassy knoll that bordered our bedroom. We were told to fill out a form and that the board would be notified. Weeks later, no action had been taken, but I was sure that news of a violent crime would motivate the HOA to act. I was wrong.

Many homeowners assume that their HOA will be their ally in protecting the safety and security of their property. But, as I discovered, they can also be slow to act.

A growing lifestyle

More homeowners now live in association-maintained property than ever before — 63 million Americans, up from 2.1 million in 1970. It’s an appealing lifestyle for many, from empty nesters to seniors to busy professionals, because HOAs take over (for a monthly fee) many of the chores associated with homeownership.

“I wouldn’t want to live without an association anymore,” said Linda Bergquist, who moved from a single-family house to a condo in Minnetonka’s Woodbine development about six years ago. After years of homeownership, she’s more than happy to delegate building and grounds maintenance to someone else. “I never have to hire another subcontractor, and the association has clout to get things done right,” she said. “It’s such a peaceful way to live. I feel kind of pampered, like I’m living in a resort.”

But in addition to plowed snow and trimmed shrubs, most HOAs also come with covenants, conditions and restrictions that can limit or prohibit a homeowner’s ability to rent the unit, own pets, smoke on the property, do business from the home or park on the street. From placement of air conditioners to bird feeders to political signs, there’s probably a rule about it.

And HOAs have a lot of power. “They’re a quasi-governmental organization,” said Scott Parkin, owner of Verve Realty of Minneapolis and a former condo association manager.

Associations are governed by a board of directors — generally residents, elected by other residents. They often partner with management companies that provide administrative and maintenance services — and keep the association’s budget in check, and homeowners in line, using a combination of fines, restriction of amenities, termination of utilities or legal action. If a resident is fined and refuses to pay, the association can put a lien on the unit, and, in extreme cases, even foreclose on it.

“In an ideal world, no one wants to be governed by a board of directors,” said Parkin. “But the benefits of the lifestyle outweigh the hazards of having to deal with the board.”

Weighing the benefits

When buying into an association-maintained community, there are several factors to consider, including the monthly fees. In townhouses, it’s usually one-size-fits-all, with dues typically ranging between $250 and $600 a month, depending on the community. Dues for condos are based on the size of individual units, and currently fall between 28 and 40 cents per square foot.

In exchange for those fees, homeowners enjoy amenities that range from the basics, like trash service, snow removal and cable and Internet packages, to luxuries such as fitness centers, carwash bays and on-site handyman services.

By law, association-maintained home buyers must receive a resale disclosure certificate. This document serves as a snapshot of where the association stands as far as reserves, special assessments and dues. Buyers also receive a copy of the association bylaws, articles of incorporation and declaration.

“They’re [buyers] required to get everything they’re ever going to need,” Parkin said. “It’s just a question of whether they’re going to read it. And they should.”

But the fine print can’t cover every real-life situation that arises for homeowners.

Paul Holte, who lived in a Rosemount townhouse for nine years, once received a letter from the HOA reminding him that his garage door could not remain open for more than an hour at a time. “The association made it not neighborly,” he said. “It kind of forced people to be hermits.”

Yet when it came to an issue Holte considered more urgent — replacing a sewer cap after the association lawn mower ran over it — Holte had to wait until there was sewage backed up onto his lawn to get action from his HOA. He reported the situation at the first sign of gray water, he recalled, but by the time the HOA took action, almost a week later, his yard was filled with gray water.

“And it all could have been prevented if someone had replaced a $10 cap,” he said.


Erica Rivera is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

Staff writer Kim Palmer contributed to this report.