Thinking outside the box can be great, especially in the homeowners association and condo association industry. It’s what makes our signature collections process here at Axela so successful.
But out-of-the-box thinking can be used against you, too. Attorneys are always looking for new ways to make the most money, even HOA attorneys. Time and again we’ve seen the tricks they use claiming to try to collect for your association, but really they’re just lining their own pockets. So often, using an HOA attorney ends with the association losing the money owed to them, and having to pay on top of that to cover lengthy legal efforts that didn’t succeed anyway.
Every time we hear stories about the crazy lengths some lawyers will go to when collecting for HOAs or condos, we start to think maybe the box is there for a reason.
A while back we talked about a community in a sticky collections situation. One of their unit owners had passed away, leaving a mortgage-free title to an heir. But, it came with a $13,000 tax certificate (which had been sold to an investor) and $17,000 owed to the association, as well as a tax-deed sale that had already been set. The perfect storm for the association to lose out on a hefty chunk of change. Now Axela was able to draft a clever plan to avoid that and had to act quickly to make it work, but if we hadn’t been called in, here’s what would have happened:
The HOA’s attorney wanted to let the unit go to the tax-deed sale and then file a suit for something called “unjust enrichment.” This is a claim basically stating that someone (in this instance, the investor who’d purchased the tax certificate) was paid at the expense of someone else (the association).
This is a risky play for a lot of reasons: first, if the tax sale goes through, the money owed to the association is ‘wiped out,’ meaning there is no chance of recovering money from the sale or from the owner after the fact. Additionally, if the judge found that the investor was not unjustly enriched (which is the likely outcome) their tax lien would have been rightly prioritized over association fees.
So the idea of unjust enrichment was a wild reach that was almost certainly going to be unsuccessful in recovering for the association. But it would have been a definite way to tack on a ton of hours in legal fees for the attorney, wouldn’t it?
Sneaking In New Rules
Fishy lawsuits aren’t the only questionable trick attorneys have up their sleeves. One client we worked with had an attorney attempt to completely ignore state statutes by advising the Board to modify the community’s governing documents to contradict state laws. This was complicated and unethical for several reasons, like the fact that governing documents don’t overrule state statutes (something an HOA attorney would be WELL aware of!) so the attorney’s time and counsel which they charged the association for were totally unnecessary.
To add insult to injury, these changes were made to try to force the bank to take responsibility for debt owed to the association, creating a lengthy legal battle as part of this ridiculous plan. Again, we’re seeing a trend of attorneys being paid but the association not recovering their lost income – in fact, the community often winds up owing the attorney more for their efforts and having to write off the bad debt from the delinquent assessments. Talk about throwing good money after bad!
Just Because it’s Legal Doesn’t Make it Ethical
Clearly, all HOA attorneys are not the same, and we hope that your community association’s attorney is an upstanding and ethical partner for your community. You need your attorney to be available to advise you on decisions the Board makes to help prevent future lawsuits and to deal with any that do come.
But your attorney is just one of the tools in your community association’s toolbox. Just as you wouldn’t use your HOA attorney (and pay their high fees) to perform management tasks, you also shouldn’t be hiring your attorney to perform collections. The attorney’s only recourse is to take the issue to the courts. That means pursuing foreclosure, or, if that’s not likely to be successful, trying some legal scheme like these that will get the attorney paid for their time, but is unlikely to end with money in the association’s pocket.
Treating People Like People
Thinking outside the box can be great, but the more we hear about the crazy legal hoops attorneys find to jump through that only seem to take advantage of the association, the more we think that they need the box.
There’s at least one ethical, merit-based way that has a 95% success rate when it comes to collecting debts owed to associations: Axela. Our proprietary technology and process empowers defaulted homeowners to set up payment plans they can actually pay off, rather than harassing them for lump sums of money they’ll never be able to repay, or putting them out of their home in a foreclosure.