The good, the bad, and the ugly
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.