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HOA Special Assessment: What It Is And How To Handle It

Sidney Richardson6-minute read

May 25, 2021

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Facing an HOA (homeowners association) special assessment can be frustrating, especially if you weren’t expecting the extra expense. While special assessments are usually not a common occurrence, it can be helpful to understand them in order to prepare for this potential extra cost in addition to your regular HOA fees. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is An HOA Special Assessment?

HOA special assessments are extra, “unusual” fees that you may be charged by your HOA board under certain conditions. These costs are usually levied by the board only in emergencies, such as in the case of unexpected large-scale damages.

Special assessments can be charged in most neighborhoods under HOA restrictive covenants. This includes all homeowners living in HOA-governed communities, not just condominium owners.

Other HOA Expenses

HOA special assessments are usually only charged in the case of unforeseen emergencies when the community needs major repairs and are separate from typical HOA costs like regular dues and planned HOA assessments. Unlike other costs, special assessments usually fall outside the HOA’s yearly budget – potentially by a lot.

If you’re part of a HOA community, you will likely be required to pay for special assessments when they come up, despite the fact that they were not planned.

Special Assessment Tax

“Special assessment” can also refer to a term associated with property tax, which is not to be confused with HOA special assessments. A special tax assessment is levied on taxpayers in order to fund a local project, usually something like road construction or maintenance, and is unrelated to HOAs.

This is similar to the way HOA special assessments are conducted, but keep in mind these two terms refer to different things.

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Why HOAs Charge Special Assessments

HOAs will typically only charge special assessments when an emergency comes up that requires action immediately and exceeds the original planned budget for the year – and even then, homeowners in the community usually must vote on the assessment before it can be charged.

While HOA special assessments may be called upon to pay for unexpected damages due to natural disasters or other accidents, they also might crop up if your HOA fails to properly budget for the year’s expenses and must pay for something that exceeds expected costs.

Necessary Community Projects

As mentioned before, HOA special assessments often cover repairs that must be made after natural disasters and other emergencies. If there’s widespread flood damage or a hurricane or tornado, repairs to roofs, fences and other community structures will have to be made that the HOA likely didn’t plan for in advance.

There’s no real limit to what these repairs might cost individual homeowners, which can be frustrating. Getting surprise-charged with a bill that will cost you potentially hundreds of dollars (if not thousands) is never fun – which is a key reason why special assessments are usually very rarely used.

Inadequate Reserve Funds

When HOAs create their budgets for the year, they decide how much homeowners will be charged in HOA dues throughout the year. The fees they opt to charge go toward planned maintenance, projects, operating expenses and other relevant community ventures. A good portion of the fee homeowners are charged also goes toward the HOA’s reserve fund, which is essentially a pool of money used to fund emergency repairs and other unforeseen expenses.

Sometimes, projects or situations might come up that drain the HOA’s reserve fund, causing special assessments to be charged to cover the remaining cost. This can be to fund anything from repairs to a new community pool that ended up costing more than the HOA planned for.

What To Expect As A Homeowner

As a homeowner, paying for a special assessment – especially a large one – can be stressful when you weren’t prepared to do so. In order to be best equipped to handle a surprise special assessment, here’s a few things you should know.

Paying Back Your Special Assessment Charge

Once an HOA board decides it will be charging a special assessment, homeowners are required to pay it over some period of time. This is decided by the board and based on a variety of factors, including how much is being charged and how quickly the project that requires the funding will need to be completed.

If the special assessment doesn’t require a particularly large contribution from each homeowner, it might be paid upfront and all at once. If the cost is going to be several hundred (or thousand) dollars per household, however, the board may split up payments and collect of the course of a year or more.

There’s no limit to what a special assessment can cost, so what you may owe will depend on the project or circumstance.

Challenging An HOA Special Assessment

Special assessments are legal, and you are likely contractually obligated to pay them by your HOA covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs), which are essentially governing documents. You can technically challenge a special assessment if you absolutely cannot or do not want to pay it, but doing so can be risky.

It could end up going to court, and if the special assessment is found to be reasonable and within the expectations of your HOA’s CC&Rs, you may end up paying even more in legal costs. Before challenging an HOA special assessment, you should always review CC&Rs first.

If you refuse to pay a special assessment and do not formally challenge it, there are additional consequences as well. Your HOA can charge you late fees, take you to court, bar you from using community resources and common areas, and even put a lien on your property if you continue to neglect to pay.

Planning For Future Special Assessments

There isn’t much you can do to plan for special assessments, since they will likely be sudden and of varying costs. It can help, however, to prioritize saving some extra cash just in case you are charged in the future. You can also raise your level of community awareness by attending board meetings and reading newsletters, where notices of upcoming special assessments would be discussed.

How HOA Special Assessments Affect Home Buying And Selling

Paying special assessments can be frustrating, but dealing with a neighborhood special assessment while buying or selling a house can be confusing as well. Since the cost of the assessment can move around depending on when you’re buying or selling a house, it’s important to be prepared as both a home buyer and seller in an HOA-governed community.

Real Estate Agents Must Disclose Special Assessments

If there is currently a special assessment in effect in a HOA neighborhood where you are looking at a house, your real estate agent must disclose that information. Depending on when the special assessment is officially decided and when you as a buyer officially come into possession of a property, you could wind up having to pay for it – which is important information to be aware of.

Existing Special Assessments Pass From Seller To Buyer

Regardless of the payment due date, if a special assessment is decided and issued after the point where the buyer officially owns a home, they now have to pay for the special assessment, whatever it is. In this way, an upcoming special assessment can pass from seller to buyer.

If a special assessment was already decided before the buyer officially became the owner of the home, however, the seller usually will have to pay that fee themselves rather than pass it to the buyer – even if they’ve sold the home.

Special Assessments Can Reflect Badly On An HOA

If there’s a special assessment in an HOA-governed community where you’re looking to buy a home, it might scare you away from the property – and for good reason. It’s hard to know whether an HOA treats special assessments as an absolute last resort or a common charge. It makes sense to fear that it’s the latter – if an HOA is mismanaging its funds and needing to call for special assessments often, that might not be a place you want to live.

The Bottom Line: Research HOA Homes And Condos Before Buying

When looking at purchasing a home that’s part of an HOA community, it’s important to consider special assessments and understand not only how they might work, but how they reflect the governing HOA as well.

If you’re on the fence about moving into an HOA community, make sure to do your research and check out our guide to the costs involved with buying a home.

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Sidney Richardson

Sidney Richardson is an intern writer covering homeownership, mortgage and lifestyle topics. She is a senior at Oakland University pursuing a degree in journalism and advertising.