Homeowners association disputes are very common. Given the diversity within a community, there’s no guarantee that the members will get along with each other all the time. Nevertheless, HOA board members need to have an effective strategy for dealing with neighbor disputes. Here’s what you need to know about resolving HOA disputes fairly.
In this article:
HOA Disputes: Should the HOA Intervene Between Neighbors?
When there is a dispute between neighbors, should the HOA have to intervene? This is a question that many HOA boards ask themselves. The answer? It depends. Boards will have to investigate HOA disputes between neighbors on a case-by-case basis and then determine whether to intervene or not.
If HOA disputes are of a personal nature — e.g., the conflict has to do with dating or relationships — the board should not really intervene. The board must always maintain neutrality and interfering with personal matters might suggest that they are taking sides.
Meanwhile, if the homeowners association problems involve the community’s governing documents, the board may have no choice but to intervene between neighbors. For example, if a homeowner complains about their neighbor always playing loud music late at night, this is considered a noise-related complaint. Most associations’ bylaws would have fines and sanctions for that.
Here are some of the most common causes of HOA disputes between neighbors:
- Noise complaints (loud parties or sound from TV, music, or instruments)
- Excessive barking from pets
- Unruly behavior from children
- Visual nuisances (overhanging trees, overgrown lawns, overflowing trash cans)
- Property maintenance issues
- Strong or unpleasant odors (cooking, smoking, etc.)
- Illegal or disruptive behaviors
If you have bad neighbors, and they are clearly violating the HOA’s rules and regulations, the board should rightfully intervene. Also, board members must also consider intervening between neighbors with personal disputes when their issue starts to affect the other members of the community. Failure to intervene in neighbor disputes where there is a threat to the safety and well-being of the community may lead to liabilities for the HOA.
Internal Process for Homeowner Association Disputes
If disputes between neighbors are not resolved quickly, it can escalate and cause major problems for everyone involved — including the HOA. The police could become involved in cases of physical violence, and this can lead to costly lawsuits.
Even though the board isn’t directly involved in these HOA disputes, it’s still their responsibility to maintain peace and order in the community. As such, it’s important to have an HOA dispute resolution policy.
A standard process for homeowners association dispute resolution ensures that the board can deal with cases fairly and judiciously. An effective dispute resolution process is also an essential part of any successful HOA.
So, how do you handle a HOA dispute? While dispute resolution will vary for each association, here is a general summary of the process.
1. Homeowner Complaint or Request for Dispute Resolution
The HOA conflict resolution process will begin with a homeowner’s complaint or request for HOA intervention. A written request usually triggers the process. But, if the complaint was made verbally, the HOA board or management should document it.
If not already in place, your board should consider requiring homeowners to submit HOA complaints in writing. This formalizes the procedure and ensures the existence of a paper trail. If you can, it would be much better to standardize the complaint letter by providing homeowners with a template or form.
Here is a sample complaint letter to HOA about neighbor problems:
2. Gather Sufficient Information
If the association does not have an HOA manager or management company, the board should assign a person-in-charge. This person will be the one to investigate the complaint. Gather as much information as you can regarding the HOA dispute. This should be done in a timely manner so that the issue can also be resolved quickly.
This step is crucial and remains one of the HOA responsibilities in neighbor disputes. Collecting information is usually easier with an HOA manager or management company, though. They can also filter through and sort the complaints ahead of time for the board.
3. Board Decision to Intervene
During a board meeting, the appointed member will present all the information they gathered. The board will then decide whether the neighbor dispute requires HOA intervention.
If possible, have HOA management or legal counsel present so that they can provide valuable insights.
The board will write a written notice of the decision. For instance, if a homeowner is found to have violated the bylaws, the board will send an official notice. This may include fines or restriction of privileges depending on your governing documents.
4. HOA Negotiation
If HOA disputes continue, the board may decide to meet with the neighbors. This initial meeting will give both sides of the dispute the opportunity to voice their concerns and explain any remedies that are being sought.
The HOA should act as a neutral mediator in this setting. The goal is to resolve the dispute between neighbors in an objective manner. If they are able to come to an agreement, the board will put this into writing and have the neighbors sign the written document.
How to Deal With Disputes Between the HOA and Residents
Apart from neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, it’s also possible to have disputes between homeowners and the board (or board members). When dealing with such disputes, it’s important to ask yourself whether the dispute is even serious. Sometimes, board members can get carried away by their emotions, resulting in petty or spiteful disputes.
Remember that board members have a fiduciary duty to prioritize the association’s interests. As such, you should always treat every case consistently and without bias.
Some of the most common causes of HOA disputes of this nature include but are not limited to:
- Disagreement about violations the homeowner is accused of committing
- Fines imposed on homeowners
- Differing interpretations of rules and covenants
- Imposing a rule not recorded within the governing documents
- Disagreement about the HOA’s authority to enforce rules
- Inconsistent or selective enforcement (or the perception of it)
- Disagreement about fund management or budgetary issues
- Imposing special assessments or an increase in dues
In any case, the HOA should still start their standard dispute resolution process. However, to maintain fairness and objectivity, the board should not be in charge. You can appoint a third party to resolve these homeowner association disputes. This can be your HOA management company or your HOA attorney.
Apart from being qualified to handle HOA disputes, the third party must be neutral. They must be able to present a resolution that takes into consideration both sides. The third part will put the resolution into writing at the conclusion of the meeting.
Alternative Forms of HOA Dispute Resolution
If HOA disputes cannot be resolved internally, you may need to consider alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation and arbitration. Both of these options allow homeowners to resolve their conflicts without litigation. These will have added costs, but they are considered less costly than lawsuits.
Meanwhile, extreme cases of HOA disputes may also lead to lawsuits. This will require even more time and money. However, if the dispute involves neighbors, this may be out of the HOA’s hands.
During mediation, a trained mediator will step in to help the parties involved reach a resolution. The mediator will listen to all parties with the goal of coming to a compromise or finding a middle ground.
Keep in mind that mediation is in no way mandatory. That means no one can force the HOA or the homeowner to participate in one. Of course, hiring a third-party neutral will cost money, and the entire mediation process does take time. Still, it is a much better (and cheaper) option than taking the matter to court.
Many states have associations of mediators or a list of government-approved mediators that HOAs and employ.
During the arbitration, a neutral third-party will hear out all parties and examine the evidence. This differs from mediation in that the arbitrator will ultimately make the final decision on how the dispute should be resolved. Like mediation, this process takes both time and money. Additionally, the parties may not be happy with the ultimate decision the arbitrator makes.
Can You Sue Over HOA Disputes?
In a word, yes. Homeowners can sue the HOA over disputes, but the litigation process is a long, tiring, and usually expensive one. There are some exceptions to this, though. State laws and an association’s governing documents may require parties to go through mediation or arbitration first, saving litigation as the last resort.
Resolve Homeowner Association Disputes Fairly and Judiciously
A successful homeowners association is one that maintains positive relationships between homeowners, as well as between homeowners and the board. Your ability to resolve HOA disputes will depend on the association’s timely response. It is also important to have a clear dispute resolution policy. Being fair and judicious throughout the process communicates to homeowners that the HOA cares for the wellbeing of all its members.
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