Property management for homeowner’s associations and condominiums can differ substantially, and perhaps the biggest difference is the process of recording and implementing letters and fines for violations of the covenants, conditions and restrictions of the community. For most communities it is the biggest time commitment for any manager–driving through the entire property, noting variations from what might be dozens of different restrictions and architectural controls, then processing violation letters and keeping track of compliance. Eventually, some of those violators may need to be referred to the board or a code enforcement committee for application of a fine or other remedial action.
The problem is that fines alone are, at best, a variably successful motivator for owners who are recalcitrant, and in many jurisdictions fines remain largely uncollectable, because liens as a result of fines may not be subject to foreclosure. So the question becomes, is there a better way to motivate owners to comply with the covenants of the association, and to possibly put less emphasis on fines as a motivating solution?
In my opinion, part of the problem with the violations process, the way that they are done by many communities, is that the ebbs and flows of owners and the various seasons aren’t always taken into account. Instead, every single violation is reviewed on each trip the manager takes through the property, and owners are expected to keep up with every covenant at every moment. The problem, however, is that there are often different times that it’s appropriate to spruce up your property. For example, an owner might not want to trim their trees during the winter, when they are mostly dormant, and knowing that they will need to be re-trimmed in the spring before storm season. Or perhaps up north a homeowner might not be interested in power washing their roof in November, knowing that it’s going to get inundated with snow and sludge for the next 6 months.
Instead of following the “every violation, every time” philosophy, consider the following alternative. Four or five times per year, have your management company send a letter to all homeowners with a friendly reminder about certain key issues in the association that need to be addressed in the upcoming months. For example, you might send a letter at the beginning of spring reminding owners to fertilize their grass, clean their roofs and check the paint on the fascia of the house for winter damage. Let them know that in 30 days the property manager will be doing an inspection of those issues. From experience, this reminder, and the more limited scope of the review, will dramatically increase the number of homeowners who comply with the applicable covenants and will avoid the need to apply as many fines. In summer you can send a similar letter for summer-type issues, such as people leaving outdoor furniture in their front yards or leaving barbecue propane tanks in unsafe areas. The general concept of this type of violations work is to give owners a heads-up of the general issues that need to be addressed during that time of year and notify them that an inspection will be conducted–in many cases, that is all the motivation needed to encourage them to keep up their homes.
The alternative, more typical procedure described at the beginning of the article frequently suffers from lower compliance and hurt feelings, as owners are often learning about a violation for the first time when they receive their warning letter (and warning letters of any kind are apt to be received hostilely by at least some homeowners). Then the owners may dig their feet in and choose not to comply out of spite, forcing the HOA to issue a fine that, many times, is not practically collectible.
The key to good property management, whether by board members or a management company, is to find creative ways to allow owners to reasonably and easily comply with the various conditions and covenants that they’ve agreed to when they bought their homes, while minimizing conflict, discontent and hurt feelings. It’s impossible to satisfy every owner, some of whom oppose any restrictions on their homes as a matter of principle, but by applying this alternative, more holistic approach to violations processing your community may be able to increase both neighborhood harmony and rules compliance with a single swipe, while greatly reducing the costs of processing fines. So give it a shot, and see if it works for you!