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Dealing with Difficult Homeowners: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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For many associations, the Board of Directors’ biggest issue is not collecting assessments, establishing budgets or even dealing with insurance claims...it’s dealing with difficult homeowners.   Even the most even-tempered folks have “hot buttons,” and dealing with the emotions entwined in ownership of one’s home can push those buttons and create problems in an association. 

The behavior of difficult people tends to fall into certain categories.  Knowing what type of person one is dealing with—and having strategies targeted toward certain behaviors—can be a significant benefit to the Board and assist it in reaching resolutions more quickly and with less discord.

The “Complainer”

The Complainer complains about everything, from the way the snow contractor plows to the dates of Board meetings to the perceived inability of the Board (or manager) to return his calls/emails within 2 hours.  The Complainer repeatedly raises the same issues again and again, even when he’s told that the Board is looking into the matter—or has already decided the matter (but the Complainer just doesn’t like the decision reached).  The Complainer complains about the “way the place looks,” but also complains about even the smallest of increases in assessments. 

The “Exception to the Rule”

When you get right down to it, the Exception just doesn’t think the rules apply to her.  She has 3 dogs—even though the rules clearly state she can have only 1.  She routinely fails to park in her garage—and then complains when her car is plowed in.  When the Board sends the Exception a violation notice, she gets very upset, and reminds the Board that she has lived in the community for 20 years, has served in various capacities on the Board during that time and, really, who is she harming with these “violations”?  If fines are imposed, she tells her sympathetic neighbors how “mean” the Board is being.

The “Hawk”

The Hawk has never served on the Board, but watches the Board’s actions “like a hawk.”  If the notice of the annual meeting goes out a day late, the Hawk is certain to let the Board know.  If the Bylaws say that the annual meeting is supposed to be in February but, because of the high number of snow birds, the Board has held the meeting in May for the last 10 years, the Hawk will let the Board know that it is not following the Bylaws.  If Halloween decorations are supposed to be taken down by November 10, the Hawk will have photographic evidence of a black cat on a porch on November 11—and demand that the homeowner be fined. 

The “Bully”

Like the Exception, the Bully thinks the rules don’t apply to him.  But, unlike the Exception, when the Bully’s violations are called to his attention or things just don’t go the way he wants them to, he “blows up.”  Board members—indeed, many homeowners in the community—are frightened of the Bully, which makes them afraid to take any action against the Bully.  The Bully knows this, and takes advantage of it.  It’s not unusual for the Bully to send scathing letters to the Board—especially in response to any violation notice the Board may send the Bully—reminding them of their many shortcomings, and threatening to sue the Board and each individual director for “everything they’ve got.” 

STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH DIFFICULT HOMEOWNERS

In general:

  • Cooler heads will always prevail.  Even if the owner becomes angry, abusive, emotional, etc., it is important for Board members to remain calm.
  • No matter how the owner treats the Board/management, treat the owner professionally and respectfully.  (This does not, however, mean that any Board member must become the owner’s “doormat” or “punching bag.”  If a civil conversation is impossible, terminate the conversation.)
  • If the Board says the Association will do something, do it—or be ready to explain why it didn’t.
  • Set personalities aside.  Each Board member must do his or her best to address the matter objectively, with confidence that each director would have reached the same decision regardless of whether the owner at issue was his close personal friend and neighbor or the community complainer.
  • Maintain transparency (while still respecting privacy).  Owners who are not aware of what is going on—who think things are done “in secret”—assume then that the Board has “something to hide” and respond accordingly. 
  • Treat complaints against Board members in the same manner as complaints against other owners.  The affected director should not participate in the discussion or decision-making aspects of the process, but should be afforded the same rights/responsibilities and opportunities to address the complaints as any other homeowner.  Board members should not receive any “special treatment” by virtue of their position as a member of the Board.

While these general strategies help in nearly every situation, different behavior models may require different responses.

The Complainer

  1. Acknowledge the complaint/communication in a reasonable amount of time.  You need not have the solution at that point, but simply acknowledging that the Board received the complaint avoids the Complainer’s wondering about receipt.  That “wondering” can exacerbate a complainer’s true level of dissatisfaction. 
  2. Consider adopting a policy that, except in true emergencies, all complaints must be submitted in writing.
  3. If it’s not clear, ask the Complainer what he expects the Association to do about the matter.  Sometimes, the Complainer “just wants you to know,” and no real action is necessary.  In that case, thank him for the information.
  4. If further action is necessary, gather pertinent facts—or delegate that task to a committee, which can then report back to the Board for final decision. 
  5. When addressing a matter, stick to facts—not allegations, not opinions.  Avoid characterizing anyone as, for example, a “whiner.”
  6. If Board action is warranted, let the Complainer know approximately when the Board expects to address the matter (and let the person know when the matter is on a given Board meeting agenda).  If the Complainer attends the meeting, present the issue factually and address the matter professionally (no raised voices, name calling, etc.).  In fact, other than any additional input the Board may specifically request from the Complainer, the Board should not engage in discussion with the Complainer. 
  7. If the Complainer is raising the same issue over and over—particularly one that’s already been addressed, but the Complainer simply doesn’t like the Board’s decision—simply remind the Complainer that the Board has already addressed the matter and made a decision; summarize that decision if needed. 
  8. Acknowledge that, sometimes, Complainers just want somebody to listen. 

The Exception

  1. Remind the Exception that it is the Board’s responsibility to enforce the rules against all homeowners equally.  It’s not personal.  Although she may believe that her violations are trivial and “don’t hurt anybody,” remind her that it’s is the Board’s responsibility to enforce all of the rules of the Association.
  2. Remind the Exception that all members of the Association must abide by the rules, including current Board members, past Board members, new residents and long-time members of the community.
  3. Remind her that a community functions properly only when everyone accepts responsibility for their behavior and agrees to abide by the rules established by the Association.
  4. If she claims that the Board is not enforcing rules uniformly, ask for substantiation.  If she advises the Board of another owner who is in violation, thank her for the information. (If further investigation is necessary, conduct that investigation.  In many cases, the Board is already aware of the problem and is dealing with it—or has already dealt with it, but other owners may simply not be aware that action is being taken.)
  5. Set standardized practices and procedures for addressing violations so that homeowners know that everyone is subject to the same rules and the same enforcement practices.
  6. If appropriate, consider waiving the first fine levied against the Exception—but make it clear that the waiver is a “one time only” action.  If the waiver is granted at a Board meeting, send a written follow up letter to the owner, confirming that the fine has been waived this time only, and confirming that future violations will be subject to fine. 
  7. Once a decision has been made, there is no need to revisit the issue.  If other homeowners inquire—the Exception may have told about the situation and told how “mean” the Board is—simply advise them that the Board is obligated to enforce all rules of the Association, and takes that responsibility seriously.  Do not engage in discussions about the Exception’s matter with those other owners. 
  8. If fines are assessed and not paid, the account should be referred for collection—but the Exception should be advised that that is the intended course of action before the referral to collections is made so that the Exception has one final opportunity to make payment before collection ensues.

The Hawk

  1. Follow the terms of the governing documents.  If necessary, create a checklist/timeline for tasks that are repeated (e.g., annual meeting and related notices, notices regarding changes in annual assessment amounts, etc.) and calendar “ticklers” to ensure notices are sent in a timely manner.
  2. If the procedures currently in place are not compliant with the terms of the Bylaws, the Board has two options: (1) change procedures to comply with the terms of the Bylaws, or (2) amend the Bylaws to make them consistent with the procedures in use.
  3. If the Association has made a mistake, acknowledge it and take steps to correct the mistake. 
  4. If appropriate, encourage the Hawk to serve on the Board so he can better ensure the Board acts in accordance with the Association’s governing documents.  (Note:  “Hawks” often don’t want to serve on the Board—they would rather simply call out mistakes the Board makes.)

The Bully

  1. If a “blow up” happens in person, ensure all directors’ personal safety.  If the Board has advance notice that the Bully will be attending a meeting, have a plan in place to deal with potential “blow ups”:
    1. Agree who will be the primary spokesperson for the Board.  If the president or manager is the object of the Bully’s wrath, another director may be a better spokesperson.
    2. If appropriate, consider having the meeting in a public place (rather than, say, a director’s home), and consider having an off-duty police officer present.  Some associations have meetings in City Hall, and let police (who are likely very nearby) know of situation.
    3. If the Bully becomes a physical threat to any director, property manager, or other person, or if he becomes loud, argumentative or verbally abusive, the spokesperson can tell him that he needs to “back off” immediately or the meeting will be adjourned.  If there is no change in behavior, the meeting should be adjourned.
    4. If face-to-face contact with the Bully cannot be done without undue confrontation, notify him that all communication to the Board must be in writing.  Consider requiring use of US mail (rather than email).  Once such a condition is imposed, the Board must hold abide by that condition and require the Bully to abide by it as well.  If the Board begins to allow him to address the Board at meetings, or allows him to engage in bullying behavior again, the Board will have to “start over” with its efforts to contain him.
    5. Respond to any communication in a reasonable amount of time, and avoid opinion or judgments.  Stick to facts.
    6. If any director fears for his or her physical safety, consult with the Association’s counsel about getting a restraining order against the owner.
    7. If the bully makes a credible threat to sue, notify the Association’s directors’ and officers’ liability carrier of a potential claim in order to better preserve coverage.

There are, of course, pitfalls to dealing with any difficult homeowner. 

  • Dealing with difficult owners requires a high level of interaction and attention, which takes time from other Board responsibilities. 
  • Dealing with difficult homeowners can wear Board members down and increase “burn out,” turnover or lack of interest by others in serving on the Board.  This can impede the Board’s ability to function effectively and to tend to Association business in an effective and efficient manner.
  • Dealing with all homeowners equitably may seem “harsh” to some owners not directly involved in the matter—especially since they may not have all the facts.
  • If the Board routinely fails to comply with the governing documents or to treat homeowners equitably, it can undermine the credibility of the Board, particular when it comes to enforcement actions.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to consult with legal counsel before taking action:

  • Before imposing a fine, consult counsel to ensure that the Association has the authority to assess a fine (not all do) and that the amount of the fine is both authorized and reasonable under the circumstances.  (Some associations’ governing documents set limits on fine amounts.) If the Association is governed by MCIOA[1], be sure that the owner has been given written notice of the violation and been advised that she has a right to a hearing, and advise the process for requesting a hearing.   If a hearing is requested, no fine should be assessed until the hearing has been held, a decision made by the Board, and notice of that decision provided to the owner. 
  • Taking legal action or engaging police protection is an additional cost to the Association which, depending on the Association’s governing documents, may or may not be assessable to the offending homeowner.  (Even if it is assessable to the owner, consider whether assessing those expenses to him may simply exacerbate the problem.)
  • If the Board takes action that is not compliant with the governing documents, the failure to follow proper procedure could negate the action or, at least call it into question.  If, for example, notice of a meeting was not provided in accordance with the Bylaws, an owner might challenge the validity of the meeting.

Dealing with difficult people—especially in a volunteer position—can be frustrating.  Bearing in mind various behavior models can help manage that frustration—and help resolve the matter more quickly and agreeably.  Maintaining good relationships between homeowners and the Board of Directors fosters a sense of community—and neighborliness.  But sometimes, even the best of intentions and efforts to resolve issues amicably can fail.  If that is the case, a Board may wish to consult with legal counsel to discuss more formal options that may be available for dealing with difficult homeowners. 


[1] Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act, Minnesota Statutes Chapter 515B.