The Real Story Behind HOA Fees and Special Assessments

What you need to know about those pesky expenses.

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Looking at a condo or other property that has homeowners association fees? Before you sign on the dotted line, it’s best if you understand exactly where those fees are coming from and their possible risk of increasing.

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Fees 101

Each year, the HOA board of directors (BOD) prepares a community budget. That budget includes what the BOD will set as the total HOA fee per month, per unit for the current year. The composition of this fee is the first thing you'll need to comprehend before you better understand why fees can increase each year as well as the much loathed “special assessment."

The monthly HOA fee has two parts to it, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume the total HOA fee is $300 per month per unit for a 100-unit community. Here are the calculations:

Current Year Operations—$200 per month

The HOA collects fees from each unit to pay for current year operations such as gardening, water, insurance, property management. In our example, the BOD forecasts forward that this year it will cost $240,000 to pay for all current year operating expenses. Since there are 100 units, we divide the $240,000 by 100 units to get $2,400 per year per unit or $200 per unit per month for operations.

Current Year Reserves for Long Capital Items—$100 per month

The HOA also has to save money over time for long-term repairs and replacements, such as roofs, roads and parking lots. To understand how much they have to save, they have, or should have, an outside expert do a “reserve study." The reserve study expert makes a 20-year schedule of when HOA assets will need to be repaired and how much they will cost. The reserve expert calculates an annual amount needed for those long-term repairs.

Therefore, through the HOA fee, owners are putting money away each year to pay for those repairs. This money accumulates into “reserves” so that the HOA can pay cash for large-item repairs when they come due. This helps avoid special assessments because the HOA has the money on hand to pay for these capital items. In our example, the reserve study specialist determined that owners should be putting away an additional $120,000 per year going forward or $1,200 per unit per year or $100 per month per unit owner.

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This totals $300 for the HOA fee per month per unit: $200 for current year operations and $100 to put away additional funds. As long as the HOA board makes perfect predictions, and the reserve study expert’s estimates are 100 percent accurate, the HOA will pay all the current year bills and be in great shape for paying for long term capital item repairs. However, this rarely happens.

HOAs Are Not Exact Science

Usually, operating expenses are higher than budgeted, or some people do not pay their HOA fees, and the HOA gets drained of cash covering expense overruns. If the BOD spends extra on operations, they won't be able to save the recommended cash for long-term repairs. Thus, the BOD increases HOA fees next year to catch up the amount they should have saved this year for their reserves.

If they don’t increase fees to make up for that balance, perhaps because owners protested higher HOA fees, when they need $240,000 to paint the building, the BOD uses a special assessment—an additional fee levied at homeowners—so the HOA can pay for the needed repairs.

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What You Should Know

At the end of the day, all the bills—current year, capital repairs and replacements—will have to be paid by you and the other owners in the community one way or another. The BOD usually does their best to financially manage the community well, but due to a number of factors above, it is a challenging assignment. All the owners have to live within the HOA finances, but note, it’s better to increase fees as you go to avoid special assessments.

Leonard Baron is a guest contributor to the Zillow Blog, a resource for real estate and mortgage news. Twitter: @zillow.