Foreclosures costing neighbors as homeowner associations pay to maintain abandoned houses

Homeowners across metro Atlanta are paying hidden costs of neighbors' foreclosures as their homeowner associations get stuck with maintaining abandoned properties until the lender or a new buyer takes over.

If HOAs don't maintain them, the empty properties drag down values of other homes and turn off prospective buyers. And at the same the associations are spending more money on maintenance and repairs, they are suffering the loss of monthly dues from foreclosed homes in their neighborhoods.

That causes them to have to raise the dues on those who do pay.

Allan Price of Roswell's River Falls neighborhood said his HOA has been forced to raise dues an average of 2 percent a year over the past several years to help pay the losses.

"There was a foreclosure unattended for such a long time with a pool so dirty it could have created a haven for West Nile virus. So we had to get a pool service to come treat it," said Price, the HOA president.

The association has paid to mow grass on foreclosed properties and perform maintenance on one house's doors and windows to keep it from deteriorating, he said.

Two homes in River Falls, a neighborhood of $300,000-plus houses, have cost the HOA nearly $23,000 in lost dues and work, Price said.

The HOA tries to get repaid by putting a lien on the properties, but Georgia law wipes those bills clean of all liens when the lender takes over the property.

"You just have to watch it play out and continue to take your losses," Price said.

Metro area HOA officers interviewed said delinquency rates have varied from 5 percent to 20 percent in their subdivisions.

State Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, tried to help the HOAs recoup their costs earlier this year by adding provisions to a bill that would have allowed the associations to collect some of their costs from liens put on properties. But he removed the proposal in the face of lobbying by the Georgia Bankers Association.

Joe Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association, said when a bank takes over a property it should not be held accountable for what a homeowner has failed to do, such as pay dues.

"It shouldn’t be the lender’s responsibility, as the lender would have no knowledge of that," Brannen said.

"Fees like HOA dues are obviously a little different from real work done on a property, but again, the lender would have no knowledge of or control over a borrower who may have stopped paying these fees, so the lender shouldn’t have to pay all that just because [banks] are forced to foreclose," he said.

Not just HOAs are affected; any liens, such as a workman's lien put on a property by an unpaid plumber, also get canceled.

Brannen said banks also usually take a loss of more than 40 percent when they foreclose on a property. It is an issue where everybody is losing money, he said, and it would be unfair to saddle a lender with all of the losses.

"Which is why foreclosure is always a last resort and needs to remain an efficient process like we have here in Georgia to keep the losses as low as possible for everyone," he said.

"Certainly, the foreclosure crisis has had an enormous impact on our clients," said Julie Howard, a partner in the Weissman Nowack Curry & Wilco law firm, which specializes in HOA law. "Assessments go up or they have deferred maintenance or deferred capital improvements or repairs."

Denise Hindes of the Echo Mill neighborhood in Cobb County said HOAs can limit their losses by being proactive in enforcing community covenants early.

But at some point an HOA has to make tough decisions about when to cut its losses and stop spending money on lawyers or collection agencies. That problem is exacerbated during the limbo period between the owner walking away and a bank taking over. That can be months or even years -- while a house sits looking worse and worse, Hindes said.

Last winter, Howard approached Hamrick, who was writing a bill to resolve problems in getting developers to turn over HOAs to homeowners. Hamrick added language that would have allowed HOAs to collect at least part of the money owed them from the lender who is in line to take the property over. Howard said states such as Florida have passed such laws.

"Of course, there was opposition from bankers," Hamrick said, and he decided to remove the collection provisions. "We are trying to address two separate problems. I guess at some point I tried to get back to original problem. That is why we ended up taking out lien issue."

Hamrick said he might try again to address the problem when the General Assembly comes back into session in January.

Howard said contacts in states where such laws have been passed told her they were able to work with banks to resolve the opposition. She is hoping to find such a resolution in Georgia, but is not waiting idly for the Legislature to address the issue.

She said she's "working on a full-scale grassroots effort" to get HOAs to lobby legislators for the change.