Living in a condo is fundamentally different than living in a free-standing house because your property decisions are intermingled with the desires and needs of other people. This is very important to understand, and many current or potential condo-owners don’t get this.
In fact, I would say that the working relationship between the owners of the condo (which I will refer to as the “HOA”, or “Home Owners Association”) is one of the most important factors you should consider when purchasing a condo.
The disfunction of the HOA in the tragic Florida Surfside condo that collapsed in 2021 is evidence of that.
Even if lives are not lost, I’ve seen HOA conflict create a living hell for people to the point where they had to sell their property solely due to HOA personality conflicts. Imagine coming home from a stressful day at work, only to face more stress at home (i.e., lawsuits, name-calling, vandalism!) due to conflicts with unreasonable neighbors living one wall-thickness away from you. It’s not pleasant.
Fortunately for me, my current HOA is pretty reasonable and chill. This is worth its weight in gold. But, it wasn’t always that way. Here are some HOA villains I’ve encountered personally or heard about from friends and family. Look out for these sinister species in the HOA menagerie:
1. The Freeloader
Thinks that the HOA is a hotel where everything is done for him. The Freeloader doesn’t vote on HOA business, doesn’t answer emails, and most of all doesn’t lift a finger to better the condo community. The Freeloader, while not the worst animal, is very common in the HOA kingdom, so watch out for this species.
2. The Litigator
Believes that the solution to every problem is to sue the HOA. I know of one owner who slipped and fell on his own doorstep (which was modified against HOA rules), then threatened to sue the HOA over it. One of my previous neighbors had water damage in his unit due to his own neglect and threatened to sue the HOA. The list goes on and on. If these went to court, they would be thrown out as frivolous, but in the meantime, they cause stress and waste time and money. There always seems to be at least one Litigator in a given HOA. This person is the worst type of selfish asshole.
3. The Cheapskate
Opposes spending any money to make necessary repairs or preventative maintenance like painting, servicing equipment, and so on. This causes even more expensive damage down the line. The Cheapskate thinks buildings magically last forever without human intervention.
4. The Deadbeat
A more extreme version of The Cheapskate, The Deadbeat purchased a condo they couldn’t afford. Their HOA dues are always late due to their own financial mismanagement.
5. The Legalist
Enforces all rules to the letter of the law. If they hear the faintest music playing past the 11 PM quiet time, the cops are called. Other minor infractions result in a mass insulting email or fine. Park in the wrong place for five minutes and your car is towed. This is a supremely unpleasant neighbor to have. My condolences if you live with one of these hideous creatures.
6. The Anarchist
Is the opposite of the Legalist. The Anarchist doesn’t follow any HOA rules and doesn’t think about the impact of his actions on his neighbors. One resident I know of would gate off part of the common walkway, completely blocking it to access, so his dogs could play in the area. The Anarchist leaves his junk in common areas, blares loud music at all hours, or makes exterior modifications to his unit without consulting the HOA.
7. The Nit-Picker
Will scrutinize all repairs or improvements done on the building to a ludicrous degree, guaranteeing that no contractor will ever want to work with your HOA again. This micromanager makes life for any poor soul doing work on the condo a living hell. Has control issues likely from some prior emotional trauma.
8. The Drama Queen (or King)
Is a hater with a personal vendetta against certain other members of the HOA. They will block and oppose anything that their victims are in favor of, no matter how reasonable they may be.
9. The Grouch
This downer has nothing better to do than to write long mass emails complaining about something or another to the HOA, usually, something relatively unimportant. This grouch has a lot of time on his/her hands and probably didn’t get enough attention as a child, or might just be lonely.
I am sure I have only scratched the surface of the dysfunctional type of people you might encounter in an HOA. While the majority of my condo neighbors have been fantastic (and occasionally selfless) people, even one bad apple can ruin a condo community.
So, before purchasing a condo, please do whatever you can to evaluate the people that you will have to live with, and who will be partially responsible for maintaining your biggest financial investment: your home.
If you’re already in a dicey condo situation, here are my tips:
- Don’t lose your cool!
As soon as strong emotions enter a discussion or dispute, it becomes personal and much harder to resolve. Believe me, there have been times when I’ve been tempted to tell someone to F-off in an email, but I didn’t. Take the higher ground. Be cool and logical in your arguments. Never write an email when you’re mad. This is also good because if your emails ever get subpoenaed (hey, it’s possible), you’ll look like the good guy. Don’t stoop to their level. It makes them look even more irrational.
- Always refer to the HOA CCRs (Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions), a.k.a. the bylaws, to resolve disputes.
Keep opinions and arguments out of the conversation by always deferring to what is in the CCRs, which is a legally-binding document. I’ve found that this defuses many situations. Don’t take sides or play politics. Always refer to the CCRs.
- Remember, these are your neighbors; cut them some slack.
You have to live next to these folks and see them perhaps every day or week. Do everything you can to avoid creating an enemy that lives next door.
- Participate in or organize in-person condo social events
Throw a condo social gathering once a year in your courtyard or common area. Or, host a gathering with food in your unit. Usually, when you know someone socially and face-to-face, they’re less likely to be antagonistic later.
- Volunteer some of your own time for the community; this is not a hotel
Yes, pick up the garbage that is sitting next to the trash cans. Throw away the junk mail that’s been sitting next to the mailbox forever. If you owned the whole place, you’d do it, right? Just because you’re sharing the place, don’t stop doing work that needs to be done. And, don’t expect payment or recognition (although you will sometimes get it). Just do it to make your own life better. Don’t be a freeloader off of the contributions of others. In some cases, my own volunteering has prompted others to act as well. Volunteering can be contagious!
- Help your neighbors
Pick up that mail that has been sitting on your neighbor’s doorstep while they are on vacation. Water their plants while you water yours. Your kindness will go a long way.
If you are going to throw a party, invite everyone and clearly tell them when it will start and be over. Don’t go crazy with loud music (unless everyone is on board). If you need to shut off the building water, give sufficient warning and be apologetic about it.
- Become an officer on your HOA board
If you don’t like how things are being done, organize some votes and get elected!
- Weigh the costs of a lawsuit
HOA’s these days are very vulnerable to lawsuits if exact procedures aren’t followed or the CCRs are out of date (as is often the case). Sometimes it’s cheaper for you to give in to an owner’s demands if it could prevent a future lawsuit.
- Remember that you might need their vote
If your neighbor plays loud music once a year for his Fourth of July party, is it really wise to call the cops? What if you need their vote to approve a modification to your unit in the future? It’s really bad to make enemies in your HOA.
Since condos are populated by imperfect human beings, every HOA has some of these creatures, at least to some extent. There is no perfect utopia when HOAs are concerned. It’s just part of the cost of condo ownership.
Extreme Cases – Harassment
If you are dealing with severe harassment or threats of violence, you should document everything and seek legal counsel (or the police if you are in immediate danger). Not dealing with it could result in a lawsuit against the HOA by one of the victims, not to mention continued harassment. Time to lawyer up.
HOA Law Firms
There are law firms that specialize in HOA issues, usually specific to each state. In California, the Adams Stirling law firm specializes in HOA law and puts out an excellent monthly email newsletter. I highly recommend signing up if you live in California.
Dealing with Noisy Neighbors
A lot of HOA disagreements stem from noise, either from a unit next to you or above you. If you’ve exhausted all of your options to make the offender quiet down (ranging from asking nicely to calling the police) you can sound-insulate your own home.
Two layers of 5/8 drywall with acoustic glue can help tremendously. If you’re OK with opening up your ceiling or walls, then you can add insulation as well.
Check out this video for ways to soundproof your ceilings:
Here’s another video on soundproofing ceilings and walls in a basement, but the principles apply to any room. Skip ahead about six minutes to get to the solutions.
What kinds of HOA villains have you encountered? Please let us know below! – Brian