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Homeowners Association Basics

Most cities and towns have zoning requirements that prohibit homeowners from making unrestricted changes to their houses. This keeps people from adding third stories to two-story structures, building three-car garages up to the neighbor's property line, or simply tearing down a house to make room for two houses on the same lot. Most communities, however, have no power to require homeowners to choose attractive colors for their exterior walls, keep their lawns well-manicured, or repair broken steps or walkways. For people who prefer a consistently well-kept neighborhood, there are a number of residential options, known as common interest developments (CIDs). The CID (sometimes called a planned unit development) combines the security of home ownership with the convenience of minimal maintenance. Often they provide residents with self-contained communities with shared amenities such as swimming pools, parks, tennis courts, and buildings for community events. Some CIDs have actual single-unit houses, while others have attached houses or townhomes. Oversight of the common areas is the responsibility of the homeowners association, whose responsibilities include maintaining common areas, managing the CID's budget (residents pay monthly maintenance fees), and ensuring that residents abide by the community's regulations.

The CID differs somewhat from a condominium or a cooperative. The condominium owner owns only the interior space of the unit; the exterior walls are considered part of the common space (and thus are maintained by a condominium owners' association). In a cooperative, owners hold shares in a corporation that owns the property; each resident actually owns shares that correspond to a specific unit. The cooperative fees pay for building maintenance inside and out. With a CID, the resident owns the entire structure and the land on which it sits. CID residents are thus responsible for the exterior upkeep of their own homes. But the community is responsible for maintaining the common amenities; many also take care of mowing lawns.

The convenience is clearly a big selling point. According to the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national advocacy and education group, there were 274,000 association-governed communities in the United States in 2005, with 22.1 million housing units and 54.6 million residents. In contrast, in 1970 there were only 10,000 such communities, with 701,000 housing units and 2.1 million residents. A survey conducted for CAI by polling group Zogby International in 2005 showed strong satisfaction among CID owners. Some 71 percent of survey respondents reported CID living as a positive experience, as opposed to only 10 percent who said it was a negative experience. More than half of respondents said they were satisfied with their homeowners association, and 90 percent said they were on friendly terms with association board members. In addition, 78 percent of respondents said that the association rules and regulations enhanced the CID's property values.

It is those rules and regulations, known as covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), that make CIDS popular, but CC&Rs are also the basis for many resident complaints. The CC&Rs generally cover the exterior appearance of each residence, and their goal is to create a uniform environment. The difficulty arises when the homeowners association and individual residents have a different idea of what "uniform" actually means. Some CIDs have very general guidelines that allow people to express a certain degree of individuality (landscaping, for example, or exterior paint colors) as long as their homes are well-kept. Other CIDs have CC&Rs that prohibit residents from choosing their own paint trim colors, planting their own shrubs in their front lawn, or even hanging an non-approved color of curtains or blinds in their windows. Often, the CC&Rs are included in the property deeds, which means removing a particular regulation can be time-consuming and cumbersome.

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