When HOA Associations Can Impose Special Assessments

How owners of condos or other properties in planned communities can learn to expect and predict financial surprises.

By , J.D. · UCLA School of Law

If you own a home in a planned development such as a condominium community, or you intend to buy into one, the threat of a special assessment on top of your regular monthly payments might loom like a storm cloud on the horizon. Such an unknown expense is difficult for homeowners to budget for. If you know the circumstances that typically cause the need for special assessments, however, you can get some indication of the chances of these painful bills cropping up in the future.

To help with that effort, this article will cover:

  • how planned developments (otherwise known as homeowners' associations or "HOAs") get ongoing funding to cover their maintenance obligations to the community and inevitable issues that come of property aging or even disasters
  • the amount that wise community leaders will set aside for emergencies
  • the importance of insurance in protecting against surprise expenses
  • indicators that a special assessment might be coming your way, and
  • what limits the law places on special assessments.

How an HOA Gets Its Money

To understand why homeowner's associations (HOAs) sometimes need to collect special assessments, you must first understand how they function financially. In most community developments, the HOA is responsible for running the place, including maintaining, repairing, and replacing equipment or other features in all the common areas. To pay for the costs of common area upkeep, the HOA collects periodic dues from each homeowner.

The bulk of the periodic dues typically go toward the HOA's ongoing maintenance and operational expenses. These might include such things as the cost of cleaning and maintaining any common pools, landscaping and gardening services for common parks, and utility and janitorial services for a common clubhouse.

A well-run HOA also sets aside a portion of the periodic dues in a reserve fund. This fund is meant to pay for the costs of larger, infrequent expenditures, such as replacing worn-out patio furniture around a common pool, or putting a new roof on an aging clubhouse.

Not every HOA is this well-run, however. And without a reserve fund, an HOA has no account to pull from when a large repair is necessary. Typically, this means the HOA will need to impose a special assessment to collect the needed funds from each homeowner. So, for example, when the clubhouse roof is finally too old to patch up again and must be replaced, the HOA will need to hit up each homeowner to pay for it.

How Much Money Should Be In Your HOA's Reserve Fund

By reviewing a copy of your HOA's financial statements (or the financial statements for the HOA in the community you want to buy into), you can see whether the HOA has a reserve fund. If not, that's a big red flag that special assessments are likely on the horizon.

Even if an HOA has a reserve fund, the account won't serve its purpose unless it's adequately funded. An HOA typically determines how much to set aside by completing a reserve study (usually done by an outside accountant).

A reserve study estimates the money needed to meet the HOA's repair and replacement obligations over the long term. The study then recommends how much of the periodic dues the HOA should set aside in a reserve fund each year to have enough to pay for the anticipated repair costs when needed.

If the study determines that the clubhouse roof will need replacement in ten years, for example, it would estimate the cost of the new roof and calculate how much must be set aside each year so that the reserve account has sufficient funds to pay for it in year ten.

By comparing the reserve fund amount to what's recommended in the reserve study (again, this information should be in the HOA's financial statements), you can tell whether the HOA's reserve fund is inadequately funded. If not, the HOA won't have enough money when it comes time to make repairs, so—you guessed it—a special assessment will probably be on its way.

Why Insufficient Insurance Can Lead to Special Assessments

Even if the reserve fund is adequate, the HOA might need to levy a special assessment in an emergency situation. This is especially true if the HOA does not have the common areas sufficiently insured. Natural disasters such as fires, tornadoes, and floods can cause unanticipated major damage to common areas, and are not costs typically anticipated when funding a reserve account.

For example, the clubhouse roof might blow off in a hurricane, or a large portion of the common landscaping might get ruined by flooding.

Take a look at your HOA's insurance policy. (It might be helpful to go over the policy with a knowledgeable insurance agent.) If the amount of coverage is insufficient, the deductibles are high, or there are "exclusions" that indicate no coverage for a source of damage you view as likely, you can bet that should disaster strike, an emergency special assessment will be necessary. Raise this issue with your HOA board.

Look for Clues of Impending Special Assessments

If your review of your HOA's financial statements makes you pretty sure that special assessments for repairs are in your future as a homeowner, you can get a better idea of when the money will be needed just by taking a look around the development. Assess the age and condition of the common areas. Older common areas are typically more likely to need repair and replacement sooner than those in a brand new development. Well-maintained common areas, however, can go a long time before needing any major work.

If you notice things such as an old clubhouse with worn out carpet, pool cabanas with leaky roofs, and shoddily repaired exercise equipment in the common gym, you know that the HOA has not been on top of its maintenance obligations. To prevent total ruin, the HOA will soon need to take on major repair and replacement expenses—and a special assessment is probably on its way.

Legal Limits on Special Assessments

The governing documents of the development (typically consisting of the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions, and Easements (CC&R's), the articles of incorporation, bylaws, and any separate rules and regulations) set forth the procedures the HOA must follow to levy special assessments. These governing documents might include a notice or voting requirement, or might limit the conditions under which a special assessment is allowed.

By reviewing your development's governing documents, you can determine whether there are any restrictions that might limit the HOA's ability to levy special assessments.

Additionally, many states have adopted laws restricting an HOA's power to levy special assessments. For example, some states limit the amount an HOA can collect in special assessments during a calendar year, or require a vote of all the owners to levy a special assessment over a certain amount. If concerned about special assessments, research the laws of your state to see whether they place legal restrictions or requirements on the HOA's power to levy special assessments.

Where to Find Help

Hopefully, by knowing some of the circumstances that most often give rise to special assessments, you can determine whether a special assessment is likely to come up in your community, and prepare and budget accordingly. If you need help determining what restrictions and procedures your HOA must follow, or whether the HOA in your development (or in a development you hope to buy into) is likely to need special assessments, an experienced real estate attorney in your area can help.

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