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This week, I had the opportunity to show a million dollar house. I realized when I pulled in the drive that this was a house I had sown before. Over a year before. It was still on the market!
As I pulled up the drive, the first impression of the house was a good one. The landscaping was well kept, professionally installed, and complementary to the house. The facade was clean, the roof unstreaked by the dark lines that sometimes happen when algae is allowed to grow there.
A quick walk around the outside however, gave me pause. Behind the foundation plantings was a rat trap, the kind you often see outside a restaurant by the dumpster. The deck was bad ly in need of refinishing, with worn boards and railings that threatened splinters. It was solid enough, just not very attractive.
The pool though, was clean and inviting enough that I actually thought of grabbing the swim suit I had in the back of the car and diving in, just once. (I didn’t do it, but I was tempted!) The slightly more distant tennis/basketball court appeared to be in good condition.
Although the power lines were a little too close for the comfort of one who might be wary of such things, they were hidden behind trees and not so close that any buzzing or popping would be a problem.
The inside was, at first glance, stunning. Rooms were not so large as to be overwhelming, but not so small that one felt cramped. There was a good flow between living room and library, with a very nice powder room to one side that was panelled to blend with the deep cherry of the bookshelves. French doors led to the large deck, or with a slight turn, a well lit passage led to the recessed family room. That space blended into the breakfast room, kitchen and sunroom, with an opening to the formal dining room and back to the front hall.
Corian countertops could have presented better as granite, but were still attractive, and two ovens plus a built in microwave and large gas cooktop were near the double sink. A laundry room with new washer and dryer and a door leading to the spacious two car garage were off a hallway that led to a side entrance.
The sunroom in the back had both skylights and ceiling fans, a mini fridge, and a compartment for a keg, complete with a bar-style spout. Unfortunately, when I opened the door to the space that could contain a keg, the inside was filthy. French doors led to the tattered deck, but by then I was starting to feel embarrassed. This was supposed to be an exclusive residence, but it wasn’t as clean as my last $400,000 listing!
Turning into the dining room, I kicked aside a dead roach on the hardwood floor. The center of the room had a clear impression of a former rug. The rest of the floor was sun faded. A similar mark remained in the family room, where the outline of the former Oriental rug was clearly visible.
Scratches in the hardwood floors could have been buffed out, and the wall in the family room had a large splotch of darker paint where someone had painted around an entertainment center. With the entertainment center gone, the ghost of old paint remained.
Carpet on the basement stairs was filthy, and although the two bedrooms and baths and the game room in the basement were very nice, the silver rat traps in the storage room were a definite turn-off.
Upstairs, there were four bedrooms, each with their own spotless bath. All were comfortably sized, with a particularly nice master suite. A back staircase led back to the kitchen, perfect for a discreet entrance from the garage or by a late night teenager hoping to pass the master suite unnoticed.
One of the bedrooms was painted a deep green except for the large splotch of blue where some large piece of furniture had once again been painted around. The furniture was gone, but the blue splotch remained.
Add to this random burned out bulbs and some dusty glass light fixtures, and the house just refused to shine as it should have. It reflected badly on the listing agent, who is known for listing expensive houses, and should have known about all these little things that added up to one big disappointment.
Now I will admit that I have not had the privilege of listing a house this large, but those I do list are always spotless. If necessary, I will go in with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and clean the windows myself. I am not above scrubbing the toilets before an open house, just to be sure there is no water ring and the bathrooms smell fresh, and I certainly have no problem with keeping a broom and dustpan in a closet somewhere so I can sweep bits of leaves, dirt or dead bugs out of the way before someone comes to look.
Now I may be assuming a lot here, but I figure that if someone can afford to live in a million dollar house, they should be able to afford light bulbs and a car pet cleaning service that actually gets the carpets clean. If there are stains, I would certainly at least make a strong suggestion that carpets be replaced or floors refinished.
Light bulbs are not expensive and an attentive agent would have made sure that details like burned out bulbs were fixed, smoke detector batteries replaced to avoid beeping, and rat traps were at least discreetly hidden in the basement. Why were they needed anyway? I find it hard to believe that there were so many rats in the area that the homeowners needed all those traps. The one outside, okay, but in the basement of an empty house?
It is my personal opinion that if an agent is going to list a million dollar house, that agent should make sure that the house looks like a million dollars! Rooms with paint “ghosts” should be repainted, splintery decks should be refinished, and if the agent isn’t willing to check the house herself, a weekly cleaning service should be employed to make sure that windows are clean, floors swept, and foil is removed from the bottom of the ovens.
Want to know what makes a house worth more? It isn’t having an agent who sticks a sign in the yard and pays for expensive brochures, but one who is honest enough to tell the owners what needs to be fixed ans actually shows up on a regular basis to make sure everything looks like a million dollars, even if it’s only a $400,000 house!

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Published: September 21, 2010

Get up to speed with the most outrageous laws and homeowners association rules.

Even celebrities such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson can be at odds with an HOA. Here are seven crazy examples of laws and HOA rules:

1. Can’t park your car in your own driveway.

In Odessa, Fla., a resident was fined by his board for parking his pickup truck in his own driveway because it wouldn’t fit in his garage. Not our problem, the HOA basically told him before slapping him with a lawsuit. After a protracted legal battle, he has since won the right to park his car, but only after two years and $200,000 in legal fees.

2. Don’t plant too many roses.

While foreclosure is an increasingly real threat to homeowners, few expect to lose their house based on gardening infractions. But that’s exactly what happened to a Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., resident who planted too many roses on his property. After $70,000 in fees, he lost his legal battle against the HOA and ultimately lost his home to the flower debacle.

3. Indoor drying only.

As seen in a Colbert Report expose, a Bend, Oregon, resident was shocked by her HOA’s rejection of her outdoor clothesline. Her natural drying method was dubbed a hazard, and they began levying fines that totaled nearly $1,000. She eventually took down the offending line, even after the Right 2 Dry movement got behind her.

4. No mothers-in-laws allowed.

If you’re a married man in Iowa, the government grants you a special privilege: you’re allowed to bar your mother-in-law from your home. While certainly useful to men trying to ditch their spouse’s mom, this law does not extend to women.

5. Only use sanctioned paint.

What appears to be an inoffensive pale blue house has caused a stir recently in one Georgia neighborhood. Unaware of his HOA’s rules, a homeowner painted his house before having the color officially approved by his board. And with a $25 per day fee levied every day his house bares the offending hue, he’s already racked up $6,800 in fines on top of legal fees.

6. No service dog for the hearing impaired.

A Fort Collins, Colo., HOA fined a hearing-impaired resident for keeping Pookee, her Pomeranian service dog. The HOA even threatened to put a lien on the property. All this despite the fact that Fair Housing Act requires condo and home owner associations to make reasonable accommodations in their procedures and rules to allow a person with disability to reside in a unit. This includes allowing service animals.

Have an issue related to service animal? Contact your local HUD office or local or state human rights agency.

7. Don’t use ‘inconsistent’ shingles.

As if it wasn’t tragedy enough when a plane fell out of the sky destroying a Sanford, Fla., man’s home, his HOA then challenged his rebuilding efforts. It threatened litigation because the shingles and elevation in his new house’s plans didn’t match his neighbors’.

Bending the rules

If you fight the law, you may lose. But there are ways to work with the restrictions of a HOA and still get your way. The first line of defense is to make sure you understand the HOA or condo association rules before you purchase the property.

If, after you move in, you’d like your home’s appearance to differ from that of your neighbors, you’ll need to submit a “variance” form of request. This request can be accepted or rejected at the board’s will, so it’s good to alert them early in your planning process. One tip to gain HOA support? Understand the challenges and perspective of HOAs, follow the rules to a tee, and offer to help them gain community support for their initiatives. Maybe even run for office. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em.
What’s the strangest local government or HOA rule you’ve ever heard of?

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By: G. M. Filisko

Published: March 26, 2010

When your homeowners association has more to do than its volunteers can handle, it’s time to call in a professional manager. Here are 10 tips for picking the right one.

1. Know what you need. Start your search by making a list of what you’d like the management company to do. You can put anything on the list, as long as the HOA board keeps the responsibility to oversee the management company’s actions. Knowing what your HOA needs will help you focus your search.

2. Choose a person or committee to do the preliminary search. Expect to devote about 20 hours to choosing a company, says Elizabeth White, an attorney at LeClairRyan in Williamsburg, Va., who represents community associations.

3. Ask if your state requires some level of manager licensing. If so, seek out companies and candidates with the proper credentials. “We’re finding a lot of management companies in states that require licensing (that) haven’t gotten the license,” White says. States that require licenses or registration include Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia. Starting in 2011, Illinois will require licenses.

4. Consider a company certified by the Community Associations Institute. This Alexandria, Va.-based organization has a range of certifications for companies and individual managers.

5. Be sure the company performs criminal background checks on its employees, especially its managers. Do your own background checks, too. Check references and do an onsite visit. “Speak to board members of associations managed by that company,” suggests David Regenbaum, CEO of Association Management Inc. in Houston. “Visit the company’s office and get a sense of its business philosophy. Some are merely bookkeeping and secretarial services. Others are fully committed and involved in the community. Make sure you select the company that’s appropriate to your needs.”

6. Investigate the firm’s bonding and insurance. Your state law and governing documents may spell out minimum standards for both, Taylor says. But a management company should also have liability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance covering its employees. Ask for a copy of the company’s insurance certificate, recommends Robert White, managing director of KW Property Management & Consulting in Miami. His firm carries a $2 million liability policy, plus a $10 million umbrella policy.

7. Read the fine print. It’s the rare management company that works without a signed contract. “It goes without saying,” Elizabeth White says, “that you should never sign the management company’s form contract.” Have your association lawyer suggest changes.

8. Try to negotiate for a one-year contract rather than the three-year contracts many companies seek. Why commit to a three-year contract if you can negotiate a one-year contract with the option to renew at one-year intervals for two years at the same price?

9. Scrutinize termination provisions. “As a manager, I don’t mind receiving 30 days’ notice of termination,” Regenbaum says. “But you shouldn’t allow the management company to give you 30 days’ notice because it’s difficult to scramble to find another manager in that time.” You need 60 to 90 days to repeat the search process if things don’t work out with your current management company.

10. Ask for a complete fee schedule, so you can compare competing contracts. Big costs may be buried in extra fees. For example, a company may provide for a manager to attend one meeting every six months and charge $100 per hour after that. It may also charge separately for postage and to manage a vote on and payment collection for special assessments. The lesson, according to Elizabeth White: Bids that come in significantly lower than others should be red flags.

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By: G. M. Filisko

Published: January 20, 2011

Does your community need a professional HOA manager or can volunteers handle the load?

Checklist: A pro is the way to go if:

  • Your HOA must manage a lot of building systems, amenities, and properties.
  • Home owners don’t have time to volunteer to manage the association.
  • Home owners don’t have the skills to do association work, such as depositing and recording dues checks or managing a pool.
  • The management companies you’re considering can get discounts from contractors or service providers, such as insurance companies, and those discounts are important to your HOA.

Our HOA doesn’t need a professional manager

OK, if the issues above don’t stand in your way, you can save money by not hiring a professional manager. Recruit volunteers who can handle billing, correspondence, and complaints. In general, you’ll want to fill board and committee volunteer positions with folks who have skills in:

  • Finance
  • Operations
  • Law
  • Public relations
  • Vendor management

Use a mix of pro and DIY in your HOA

If your HOA can cover some but not all of the jobs on your list, split the work between in-house volunteers and outside professionals. Some HOAs have an accounting firm handle billing, deposits, and audits, while board members manage contractors and tackle correspondence, complaints, and inquiries from owners.

Either way, a professional management company should never run the whole show. It should take its direction from the board. Nor would it be fiscally wise to let an outside firm have full control over your finances.

And keep your eyes on the prize: property values. Smart home buyers will avoid buying into associations where common areas aren’t spiffy and community budgets show cost overruns and special assessments for unplanned repairs.

 

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