At one end of a community table at a busy Starbucks on a chilly September evening a young couple outlined to their Realtor what they wanted in a property: An updated kitchen, a garage, and somebody to shovel the sidewalks when it snows. They wanted to live somewhere with a homeowners association.
On the opposite side of the table, a frustrated homeowner of 17 years vented to a reporter about the good, the bad and the ugly of living in a covenant-controlled community, typically called an HOA.
“I probably wouldn’t buy a home in an HOA again,” said Martha Lugo, taking a swig of coffee and seriously shaking her head.
Lugo bought a townhouse in central Aurora in 2000. Before moving to Colorado, she said she had no idea HOA communities even existed. They weren’t as common in El Paso, where Lugo lived previously. But to her it sounded like a good deal, especially being a single mother working a full-time job. There’d be security in her neighborhood and people to take care of the maintenance, all for a reasonable monthly cost.
Since buying the home, Lugo has changed her mind. She has a long story to tell about how bad life has been under the thumb of her HOA. She’s a former state probation officer turned grad student and a 2017 candidate for Aurora City Council.
Like the community table at the Starbucks, there seems to be little room between delight and disgust on the HOA spectrum.
“Give money every month to an organization for them to tell me I can’t paint my house the color I want? No thanks!,” one Reddit user posted on a thread about Aurora HOAs.
Another responded: “Then your neighbor paints his house in neon green with purple polka dots ;-)”
Terry Gist, president of the Aurora Association of Realtors, said, like the Reddit users and the Starbucks community table, his clients are typically pretty divided on the topic of HOAs.
“It’s not either or, it’s one or the other,” he said with a laugh.
An HOA is typically seen as a mechanism for keeping up property values. Lawns stay manicured and homes fit a specific aesthetic via bylaws and dues each homeowner agrees to pay when they purchase the home. Some maintenance is also taken care of as well. For many, the perks outweigh the rules and the potential consequences.
Gist doesn’t believe all HOAs are necessarily good at keeping up property values, though it has become a major marketing point. And so, homebuyers should do their research before committing to a house in an HOA community, he added. If it’s a new community, Gist suggests researching the developer to see if there are any court documents related to their association.
In established HOAs, Gist said taking a look at an HOAs financials after securing a contract is important. If an association only has $5,000 to $10,000 in the bank, it’s a good sign those HOA fees may spike sooner rather than later, especially if there is noticeable wear and tear on the streets and peeling paint on the houses, Gist said.
Some homeowners and buyers see an association’s enforcement of the rules, such as repainting or keeping curb appeal up, as overbearing and sometimes unnecessary. It’s entirely possible a person could paint their home the wrong color of beige living under an HOA.
One woman showed us a complaint from her Southlands area homeowner association complaining about having repainted her large and pricey house. Painters repainted the house an identical shade of beige. But she was cited by her HOA for having not first submitted painting samples to HOA for prior approval.
She received a nasty cease-and-desist notice instructing her to return the house to it’s original color or pay substantial fines.
Not wanting to invoke the wrath of her HOA guardians, she asked not to be identified. She said they became even more angry when she started pointing out endless HOA rule offenses up and down her block.
Her answer right now is just to ignore them, as well as the command they replace their entire driveway after someone noticed there were cosmetic cracks in the cement.
“It never ends,” she said.
Lugo said she had a handful of similar experiences with her HOA. She bought her house a muted pink shade, which she liked. One day Lugo returned home from work only to find her house a completely different color. It was no longer the quirky rose color she loved. It was beige.
Her recourse? None, she said.
Keith Gantenbein, a Denver-area attorney whose firm only represents homeowners when it comes to HOA-related issues, knows what kind of workload to expect depending on the time of year. In the summer, there will be an uptick in disputes about lawn care and landscaping.
In October, Gantenbein said he was gearing up for the predictable disputes over holiday decorations.
“It can get really specific, what holiday decorations are allowed and when they’re allowed,” he said. “I see an ebb and flow seasonally.”
Before starting his own law firm, Gantenbein worked for Hindman Sanchez, a Colorado HOA law firm, and Castle Stawiarski, a Colorado-based foreclosure firm. The attorney believes that work has given him a unique edge over other attorneys when it comes to working strictly for home-buyers.
Gantenbein himself said he wouldn’t buy a home in an HOA.
“I don’t like to play by the rules,” he said. “It’s like, if my weeds are too tall, I’m busy. I’ll get to it.”
Like Gist, he said it’s important to do the research into an HOA before purchasing the home, a vast majority of his clients get the paperwork and just don’t read it. That can at least educate the home buyer on what to expect with decorations or home maintenance.
“Five years ago they sent me a nasty letter telling me I needed to change the windows. They gave me some crazy, bogus deadline,” Lugo said.
Those of course were annoying, but nothing compared to when she started falling behind on her HOA payments. Lugo, who is finishing up a Ph.D degree, said she went through some financial ups and downs since buying the home.
“Last year, I fell behind toward the end of the year and it went on to this year,” she said. “Well, all of a sudden I’m facing judicial foreclosure. I always thought they could probably do a lien, and I’d deal with that when I got there.”
Lugo claims the HOA management company was tricky in getting letters to her. Instead of sending a certified letter, Lugo said the company had claimed it served her the papers. And from June, the $10,000 she owed turned into $13,000 even though she had worked out a payment plan with the HOA.
In all states HOAs can record a lien on a home in their control if HOA costs aren’t paid — in Colorado, one law requires associations to make an effort to set up some kind of payment plan. But on the flipside, Colorado is also a super-lien state, which means a lien has first priority over the first and second mortgage if there is more than six months in back dues owed to the association.
Judicial foreclosures are the other top HOA-related issue Gantenbein said he deals with on a regular basis, and even more so now that the housing market in the Denver-metro is strong.
“A lot of the new homes are going to be with an HOA and you’re kind of locked into that if you want to be in that community,” Gantenbein said, adding that a major problem for people who face judicial foreclosure is that they are buying a house at the top of their price point if some kind of emergency happens, paying HOA dues just isn’t possible anymore.
Many of the home buyers Gantenbein said he works with are only a few thousand dollars behind in HOA fees. But legal and late fees can easily add $10,000 to $15,000 to that.
Given the power HOAs have in Colorado, and their relationships with homeowners, former Aurora Rep. Su Ryden, helped form a state resource center dedicated to HOA issues.
“We started out wanting to create an ombudsman,” Ryden said. “But we settled on the information office.”
In talking to constituents, Ryden said she realized there was a lot of misunderstanding about just how powerful HOAs can be, what they have control over and the actions they can take.
“They really don’t realize how much power the HOA has,” Ryden said. “And a lot of it has to do with the appearance of the neighborhood.”
The HOA Information and Resource Center receives, on average, 37 complaints from homeowners and renters per week. Nearly half are from communities surrounding Denver, including Aurora where there are more than 350 HOA communities.
Most often the complaints are about enforcement — an HOA not properly enforcing rules, selectively enforcing or “having lax enforcement for the benefit of a board member or officer,” according to the center, which is a subset of the Colorado Division of Real Estate.
Those complaints, which were up compared to 2015, made up 57 percent of the 1,953 complaints in 2016. Ignoring HOA rules and HOA’s failing to perform maintenance are also fairly common.
Ryden became somewhat of a champion of HOA issues during her tenure in the legislature, eventually sponsoring legislation with former State Sen. Morgan Carroll, who also represented Aurora, to create the resource center.
The former lawmaker said she doesn’t seem to be around those conversations about HOAs anymore since she’s no longer at the legislature. But Lugo, who was running a bid for Aurora City Council when she talked about her HOA experiences, said she’d like to see more done.
“Throughout most of my life I’ve seen injustice. Corporations stomping the little guy every single time. This is a part of that. It’s like loan sharking.” Lugo said.
Lugo, who has enlisted the Gantenbein law firm to help her, took a final drink of her coffee.
“But I’m going to fight it.”