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SOUTH JORDAN — Before Amanda Collins and her family moved into her South Jordan townhome more than a decade ago, she made sure to ask about the fees for the two homeowner associations, or HOAs.
“One of my first questions with the real estate agent was, ‘Do you expect the HOAs to continue to rise?’” Collins said.
In the beginning, the combined payment for both HOAs in her Daybreak community totaled about $150 per month.
“Every year both HOAs have increased,” she said. “I don’t think there has been a single year that the HOA hasn’t gone up.”
Fast forward to today, and she’s now paying more than $300 per month — which covers community activities, exterior maintenance, landscaping and other amenities.
“I had no idea in 2007 that my HOA in 10 years would double,” she said.
On top of that, her sub-association HOA, consisting of 389 homes in her section of the community, is blowing through cash on emergency repairs, fighting a legal battle with the builder and has considered cutting services like snow removal.
“A lot of people think that moving into an HOA will be easier, but there’s a cost that goes with it,” Collins said.
Her experience is something St. George resident Jerry Campbell says he’s seen over and over again.
“There’s a rude awakening for most people who buy in an association,” he said.
For nearly 20 years, Campbell has been training HOA boards on how to manage their communities—first through seminars and later through individual consulting. Some HOAs, he says, are destined to run into financial trouble at no fault of their own because fees are set too low by developers.
“Keeping the dues artificially low, that’s to encourage sales,” Campbell said. “Gee-whiz, it’s only 20 bucks a month.”
He advocated for a change in Utah law which requires associations to study how much money they should be saving for major expenses.
“It takes a developer seven, eight, nine, 10 years to develop an association,” he explained, “and by then, the swimming pool needs help, the club house needs help, the roads need help, and the funds weren’t there.”
While some HOAs struggle with controlling monthly fees, others can forgo raising monthly dues while still providing valuable benefits.
“I wouldn’t live where there wasn’t an HOA,” said South Jordan resident Jeff Jones, who also lives in Daybreak but in a different HOA than Collins.
Jones likes his HOA and says monthly dues only go up slightly every year. He credits the community rules about architecture and landscaping for helping preserve the value of his home.
“If you want to have complete freedom and do your own thing and let your neighbor worry about what they’re doing then live somewhere else,” Jones said. “Don’t live in an HOA.”
The debate comes as more and more Utah residents live in HOAs. In fact, the Community Associations Institute estimates that 680,000 Utahns reside in association-governed communities.
A records request from the Utah Department of Commerce obtained by KSL reveals that 3,751 homeowner and condo associations have filed with the state’s registry since mid-June of 2011. While registering with the state is required by law, it’s not enforced, said Dept. of Commerce spokesperson Jennifer Bolton.
State lawmaker Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, says she knows all too well the headache that HOAs can cause. A few years ago, she and her neighbors challenged their board of directors over fees, fines and overbearing enforcement of rules.
“It was intimidating and hurtful to the community,” she said of the neighborhood’s atmosphere that caused her to act.
Weight got a copy of her HOA’s governing documents and discovered she and her neighbors were on their own to fix what they didn’t like about the way their community was being governed.
“I actually called attorneys at the state level, county level and city level to see if there was any enforcement capability on their levels of these documents — there isn’t,” Weight said.
By thoroughly reading through the documents, Weight helped charter a course to elect new homeowners to the board, even holding secret meetings with fellow residents.
“They did not like our having those meetings,” Weight said of the board members. “They did not attend them. They tore down our posters. They wrote nasty notes on them.”
Weight thinks it should be a requirement for potential buyers and incoming residents to know the facts about their HOA, although she doesn’t think that a state statute is the best place to implement such a condition.
As for Collins, as things got worse with her HOA, she decided to get involved on the board to help find solutions.
“I think the more that you get involved with the HOA, your own HOA, the better it will be,” she said.
She agrees with Campbell that the financial problems usually start in the beginning and encourages would-be homeowners to thoroughly investigate an HOA before making a purchase.
“Our HOA was actually in debt when they turned it over to the residents,” she said. “Look at the financials of an HOA, are they doing what they need to do? Are they doing their due diligence? Putting money away in reserves for when those emergencies come?”
Experts also encourage potential buyers and existing HOA members to obtain the governing documents for their community, usually available at your county recorder’s office. You can also obtain financial records to see how much money the HOA has set aside and compare that to the most recent reserve-funds study.
Other helpful tips include checking for any active lawsuits or other legal trouble with the HOA, attending board meetings and talking with residents to gather more information about the history of the association.