Beware of Homeowners' Association Abuses

When money is tight, a homeowner looks for expenses to trim, and sometimes may skip some bills altogether. But beware: falling behind on homeowners' association dues can trigger a foreclosure, even if the debt is only a few hundred dollars.

This often-overlooked trap appears to be snaring more and more homeowners as the recovery lags and unemployment stays high, according to an analysis by HSH Associates, the mortgage-data firm. Many states make homeowners' association foreclosures fairly easy, and the associations have a variety of incentives for acting quickly when a member is in arrears, HSH says.

Dues are used for things like exterior maintenance and road repair.

“Homeowners' associations (HOAs) have a history of foreclosing on owners to collect relatively small sums of money,” HSH says. “For example, in one California study, the median amount owed in HOA foreclosures was just over $2,000 ... One family even lost their home because of a $120 HOA arrearage!”

That same study showed that foreclosures by mortgage lenders involved debts averaging more than $190,000, HSH says.

In most cases, an association’s threat to foreclose is enough to make the homeowner catch up and the foreclosure process is halted, but often not until the terrified homeowner caves into paying onerous penalties.

Why are homeowners' associations so strict? It seems a bit surprising. After all, your friends and neighbors may hold many of the association’s seats.

One reason, says HSH, is to protect other association members. Many lenders refuse to approve mortgages in developments where more than 15% of members are delinquent in dues. That could make it impossible for the neighbors to sell, and it can drive down home values.

There have also been reports of unscrupulous board members using foreclosures to scoop up properties at fire-sale prices and turn them around for a quick profit. In other cases, associations, their attorneys or property management companies see foreclosure threats as an easy way to earn a few thousand dollars in fees, fines and interest paid by the delinquent homeowner.

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