Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Some thoughts about Home Owners Associations

Pat and I have been toying with the idea of buying a house of some sort in Arizona. Real estate prices in that state have plummeted, so there are a lot of good deals out there. The idea is that we would get a place close to ASU that Gerald could live in and that we could stay in when we go to visit him. By the time he graduates, property values will probably not have risen to the extreme levels they were at before the real-estate crash, but the house would likely have gained some value. At that point, we might sell at a profit, keep the place as a rental, or move into it ourselves – at least during the colder parts of the year. For summer, we’d retreat to Five O’Clock Somewhere up in the mountains.

Some of the properties we have looked at have been in neighborhoods where there is a Home Owners Association, or HOA. That can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on the nature of the HOA in question. A good HOA will preserve or even enhance the value of the properties in the neighborhood, and it will provide a good return on residents’ dues in terms of services provided. A bad HOA can be a nightmare to deal with.

Among the HOAs associated with homes in Arizona, $100 a month seems to be about typical for dues. For that money, the HOA provides facilities and services, such as community swimming pools, tennis courts, open space, golf courses, clubhouses, and/or security. Some HOAs have lower dues, about $40 a month, and presumably the amenities provided are fewer as well.

And then there are the really bare-bones HOAs. We haven’t seen any of those in Arizona, but I was once on the board of an HOA that had one, and only one, function: to maintain and improve 7½ miles of private road leading into the neighborhood. No, I’m not on the board anymore, so I didn’t have anything to do with the current board’s disastrous decision to cut corners on costs by using cheaper gravel that turned out to be contaminated by millions of small nails, screws, and bits of wire. But back then, we were justifiably proud of our road. We heard many people call it “the best private road in Rio Arriba County,” and members of other HOA boards came to observe how we operated and how we managed to maintain the road with “only” $150 a year dues. (Dues have since been raised to $200 a year, but the board still manages to do a lot with very little – which lately has included paying for a lot of members’ tire repairs.)

Of course, services are only one side of the HOA issue. Many HOAs do more than provide services; they also have a say in what residents can or can’t do with their homes. This is seen primarily as a way to preserve property values; a neighbor’s activity will not negatively impact a place and reduce its desirability. These rules may be fairly loose, or they may be strict, and they typically apply to what can be stored in a house or yard, what activities can or can’t be done, what sort of landscaping is permitted, and changes to the house or other structures. The idea is that a person can buy a house in the neighborhood and not have to worry that the neighbors will disassemble junk cars in the front yard or paint their house vomit-green.

On the other hand, some HOAs rule with an iron fist. My brother Jer, of Muddled Ramblings, once lived in a neighborhood with a very strict and unreasonable HOA. He and his wife wanted to remodel the kitchen, but even though that remodeling wouldn’t impact the exterior of the house, it required approval of the HOA board. Another time, they wanted to replace a balky sliding glass door with an attractive French door at the back of the house. The board refused.

Jer’s neighbor had an even crazier run-in with the HOA. The neighborhood is on the edge of a canyon that is kept as a wilderness preserve in Southern California, where wildfires frequently sweep through in vast waves of destruction. The fire marshal had made an inspection of all local neighborhoods as part of an emergency-preparedness “triage” plan, and had declared that, in the event of a wildfire, this neighborhood was not savable, and that firefighting resources would be better focused elsewhere.

So the neighbor bought and installed a fire hose in front of his house. The HOA board went ballistic, ordering him to remove the eyesore immediately. He begged and pleaded and groveled, and eventually the board allowed him to keep the fire hose, under two conditions: that he keep it locked up at all times and that he not train anybody in how to use it.

The next fire season in Southern California was one of the worst on record. At one point, it seemed like all of San Diego County was on fire. Jer’s neighborhood was surrounded on three sides by wildfires. The neighbor broke out the fire hose and spent the next two days spraying water on all of the houses within reach. When the flames subsided, smoldering wreckage was all around, but Jer’s neighborhood survived. I never heard, though, whether the HOA board ate crow.

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, some HOAs seem to have more reasonable rules than others. It’s very typical to see rules on what color residents can paint their houses, restricting or forbidding parking of boats or RVs, or regulating landscaping.

There is one neighborhood in particular, where I would not want to live. The HOA has completely unreasonable restrictions, for example, on what colors house trim may be painted. If I want to paint my front door blue (a tradition in Northern New Mexico for good luck), I fail to see how that negatively impacts my neighbor’s property value, but blue is not on the list of permitted colors. That rule, however, is the least of the beefs with this particular HOA. The landscaping rules require that residents pretend they are not living in a desert. At least a certain percentage of the lot must be landscaped with water-hogging green grass (artificial turf is not allowed), and desert vegetation is forbidden, especially cacti. Saguaros are expressly prohibited.

That’s right, no saguaros allowed. In a neighborhood in Arizona. The saguaro blossom is the state flower. The majestic cactus itself is such an iconic symbol of the state that the very thought of Arizona brings to mind images of it, and it’s featured on state license plate. It amounts to heresy to prohibit an Arizona resident from having one as part of the landscape. If people don’t want to live where there are saguaros, they darn well shouldn’t live in Arizona, except perhaps in the northern part of the state that doesn’t have them.

On the other hand, there’s another neighborhood whose HOA’s rules are much more to my liking. Very few things are totally forbidden, although many do have to get approval of a special Architectural Compliance Committee appointed by the HOA board. This committee is very busy; it meets for two hours every other week. Depending on how reasonable members of the committee are, I might be able to live with it. For example, the HOA does have a list of approved colors that one can paint one’s house trim, but if a homeowner wishes to use another color, he or she can get permission from the committee. If I want to paint my front door blue, I can bring in a paint chip of the shade I want to use and explain how it will not detract from the appearance of the neighborhood, as well as the cultural background behind the color – this HOA seems to be very big on cultural heritage.

Other things that are forbidden outright by some HOAs are allowed in this neighborhood, again, with the approval of the Architectural Compliance Committee. Boats and RVs, clotheslines, auto maintenance, and more, are generally acceptable if they are not within view of adjacent properties or public areas, and if the means of shielding said view (shed, fence, or whatever) is approved by the committee. If the committee is reasonable about sheds, fences, and the like, I can live with that.

But the big thing that I really like about this HOA is its landscaping rules. This HOA understands the desert and respects it. Residents are encouraged to landscape with desert vegetation, especially species native to the Sonoran Desert, although other water-thrifty plants are allowed. The HOA has an extensive, detailed list, broken down by categories, of approved plants that a homeowner can plant. And yes, the saguaro tops the list in the “cactus” category. The HOA also has an extremely short list of forbidden plants that guzzle water, crank out vast quantities of pollen, or otherwise create a nuisance (palm trees over a certain height, pines, oleanders, junipers, and Bermuda grass). Any plant that is not on the approved list but not on that short list can be planted if – you guessed it – the Architectural Compliance Committee approves.

There is, however, one restriction on landscaping that I can’t quite figure out. Residents are not to have “unnecessarily unattractive shrubbery.” What the heck is that? I guess I can define “necessarily unattractive” shrubbery as, say, scrawny new plants that need time to fill out, or “unnecessarily attractive” plants as those that don’t have to be pretty but happen to be, while “necessarily attractive” shrubbery would be plants that can’t help being beautiful. But “unnecessarily unattractive”? My best guess would be something like obscene topiaries, but I’m not so sure. I guess I would have to ask the Architectural Compliance Committee.

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Blogger O Docker said...

I don't know, Carol Anne.

I think I would look for a homeowners association that is just and fair.

Then just get a shrubbery that looks nice, of course.

And not too expensive.

If they were OK with that, you could then try adding another shrubbery, only slightly higher, so you get a two-level effect, with a little path running down the middle.

Mon Jan 31, 09:51:00 PM MST  
Blogger Aser said...

HOA's are evil, IMHO, as they say. We dodged a bullet when we backed out of a new home 14 years ago. The HOA stipulated that any landscaping had to be approved, any repainting of the house needed to be approved, etc.

No, no, no. We have vegetable gardens in boxes in the front of this house, and a blue front door! and a fish pond off the front porch.

And an enormous dwarf blue gum eucalyptus that would disgust any HOA and that cuts our AC bills ... well, we don't have many of those at all.

Mon Jan 31, 10:50:00 PM MST  
Blogger Tillerman said...

We just formed our HOA and it hasn't got around yet to enforcing the terms of the restrictive covenants that we all signed when bought our houses. I reckon that about 50% of the houses in the development are breaking the rules... including the house owned by the president of the HOA. I am thinking of volunteering to draw up a list of all the violations and sending it (anonymously of course) to every member of the HOA. Then I will sit back at the next HOA meeting and watch the fun.

I will of course include myself on the list. Hanging my sailing gear outside to dry is definitely against the rules and I do that all the time.

Tue Feb 01, 06:55:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

The HOA at Five O'Clock Somewhere has rules too, but the rules went unenforced for so long that, according to state law, they no longer exist. So all the board does anymore is collect dues and maintain the road.

Tue Feb 01, 11:25:00 AM MST  
Blogger Pat said...

Actually, the "Camp Swampy" HOA in Tempe requires the vast majority of a person's yard to be lush, green, water-wasting lawn or approved ground cover. About the only way to reduce a significant amount of lush lawn is to install a swimming pool, so as to evaporate even more water.

Wed Feb 02, 12:09:00 AM MST  
Anonymous Adriftatsea said...

IMHO, the Camp Swampy people are idiots. I can't see very many stupider ideas than to require one to have a grass lawn in a desert. I am assuming that they require you to WATER said lawn to keep it lush and green, even though the environment is totally hostile towards such a thing as well.

When I lived in NoVA, I had a HOA that was fairly reasonable, but it did not collect dues, so I'm not quite sure how it worked. I traveled too much when I first moved there to really participate in the HOA, and after I stopped traveling so much, Gee had moved in and we had other things to deal with.

Wed Feb 02, 04:56:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

I am reminded of a comment from a Scottsdale resident: "I'm so glad Arizona doesn't observe Daylight Savings Time. That extra hour of daylight would be really hard on my lawn; I have to water it so much already!"

Wed Feb 02, 11:59:00 PM MST  

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