Condominium living isn’t for everyone. A unit owner in a condominium or planned community is governed by a number of rules contained in the declaration and bylaws, and the homeowners association runs the show, often with an iron hand. In my practice, I represent associations as well as individual unit owners who have become disgruntled with either the fees charged or the level of services provided by the association. While it can often seem oppressive, there is probably good reason for associations to run a very controlled and strict organization. Quite frankly, without that, matters pertaining to the community could degrade to utter chaos with the respective unit owners doing as they please. In order to provide uniformity and to promote reasonable living conditions and property values, the regulations are established to assure that everyone follows the same strict rules. If you cannot tolerate uniformity and strict rules, you should consider finding a different type of living arrangement.
Yes, it can often feel like there is a dictatorship in place and that you are unable to freely express yourself and your views regarding how things should be run or the way the property should look. However, the fact of the matter is that the association is empowered to strictly control almost all aspects of the condominium or planned community and it is generally legal for it to exercise broad control, even over what appear to be very minor matters involving things that we might commonly consider issues of personal style or preference. You consented to those rules when you bought your unit, regardless of whether you fully realized it at the time.
With respect to assessments and other fees, your obligation to make full and prompt payment is absolute and the association has broad powers to collect any delinquent charges and legal fees. Often, the association also has the right to charge significant interest or late fees. The balance can grow very quickly when interest and fees are added to the original delinquent amount. I sometimes get calls from folks that say they are not going to pay the assessments until the association addresses an issue they have raised; often regarding the level of services or maintenance provided. Not a good idea. As a matter of law, you have no right to withhold payment of assessments for any reason and you may not assert a set-off of any kind. In situations where you have a legitimate issue, you must pay your assessments as they come due and pursue your claims against the association by first giving notice of the problems and then, if necessary, pursuing a separate lawsuit for relief or recovery.
With respect to the many other rules governing the community, the association has equally broad powers. Unit owners also consent to those rules when they purchase their unit. In that regard, the association typically has very broad powers to exercise architectural and aesthetic control over the things a unit owner does to the exterior of the unit. An example would be where a unit owner wants to stain his or her deck black but the rules require some other color. Sure, this can be aggravating, especially where you are certain that the proposed color of stain would look great but it isn’t going to fly and you are likely headed for problems. However, the association can enforce its rules by legal means often including the recovery of fines and legal fees, and thus the battle is generally lost before it starts.
In the end, it is much wiser and more practical to understand the type of community in which you live and find reasonable ways to enhance your relationship with the association and its management personnel including sometimes having to simply surrender on an issue. Like “city hall,” you typically can’t fight an association. You must understand your relationship with the particular association and the controlling rules and regulations to best ascertain whether you have a proper claim or grievance. Only in instances where the association is clearly failing to comply with its obligations can you assert a claim. However, you must continue to pay your fees and dues on time while those claims are pursued. While community living has its good and bad points, it is important that you make sure it is a good fit for you before purchasing such a unit.
— Curt Ward