Community association managers and board members are often troubled by how ill-prepared new members are for community life. New members who are inexperienced about life in community associations may have a hard time adjusting and may cause a variety of legal problems. Educating them might be your best defense.

Many new members come from a background of not living within a covenant controlled community and expect to have as much autonomy as they had before over things like the color they paint the exterior of their home/unit, where they walk their dogs, etc. Others come from rental properties and have different expectations.

New members who don’t understand how community associations work often cause trouble for the association. For example, they violate rules they consider too intrusive; they refuse to pay assessments; or, they fail to maintain and insure parts of their unit based on the assumption that it’s the association’s responsibility.

To get new community members to comply with association rules, the community often must have the association attorney send warning letters or start lawsuits against these members. The money spent on legal fees can add up quickly if there are numerous violations.

Common Misunderstandings Lead to Costly Problems
New members often have no understanding of how associations operate. They think they can do whatever they want; that their home is their castle. They often consider association attempts to impose its rules on them to be an intrusion into their private lives.

In some instances, new members have the false impression membership is optional, or they need only to pay assessments if they use community amenities. We’ve seen many association members explain their refusal to pay assessments by saying they don’t use the pool or tennis courts.

And sometimes new members feel that, as a member of the association, they have a right to direct input on all association-related decisions.

All of these misunderstandings can lead to resentment, rule violations, and legal fees. One way some community associations are dealing with these problems is by hosting new member orientations, during which new members are taught some of the fundamentals of association life.

The following are some general guidelines on how to hold a new member orientation and what topics to cover:

Setting Up Orientations

  1. Hold group orientation once a quarter. Doing this will bring an air of community to the meeting by allowing new members to meet and bond with other new members. It’s never too soon to create a positive, communal atmosphere among your new members.
  2. Make orientation a social event. It will be to your benefit if you can make the orientation a pleasant, socially enjoyable event. While it might be possible to make the orientation mandatory, forcing people to attend will likely be difficult. Encourage people to attend by serving coffee, doughnuts or other items.
  3. Invite community “veterans” to join in. Again, to foster a spirit of community and make the orientation a pleasant event, invite existing community members to join you. Many will appreciate the opportunity to meet their new neighbors, have a bite to eat and socialize.

What to Cover in Orientation
Here are six recommended topics to cover in your new member orientations. Every association is unique, so feel free to add anything that works for your community. You may also want to contact an attorney to get ideas on what else to include.

1.     Basics of association living. It’s essential that new members understand what a community association is and how it operates. To help them understand, explain three things:

a.     Benefits and drawbacks. Community association members rely on one another to maintain property values and quality of life in the community. However, members must be more accountable to their neighbors than they might be elsewhere.

b.     Corporate structure. Emphasize that the community association is a “non-profit corporation” and, as such, it depends entirely on members’ assessments in order to operate.

c.     Mandatory Membership. Explain membership in the association is mandatory and when the new members bought their home/unit, the deed to it said they agreed to accept the association’s governing documents, and that those documents say that everyone who buys a unit in the association automatically becomes a member.

2.     Why there are rules. Explain the association’s rules are for everyone’s benefit and are necessary to maintain property values and the quality of life in the community. Also, remind new members they agreed to abide by the rules and regulations when they purchased their home/unit. If members buy into the importance of the rules from the start, they’re much more likely to comply with them voluntarily, resulting in fewer expenses trying to enforce the rules.

3.     Governing documents. Cover the following points regarding your governing documents:

a.     The association has a declaration, bylaws, articles of incorporation, rules and regulations and any other documents by which your community is governed;

b.     That members should get a copy of the governing documents and read them to learn more about the community; and

c.     That there are restrictive covenants with which all members must comply

4.     Responsibilities as a member. Review members’ responsibilities, such as the obligation to pay their assessments and follow the association’s rules. Also go over the division of maintenance and insurance responsibilities between the association and its members. Educating new members about their responsibilities will help avoid disputes in the future.

5.    Governance overview. Do a governance overview to explain who runs the association and the process by which it operates. First, explain that the association is controlled by a board of directors that makes the big picture decisions for the association. Then explain the board is elected by the members and has the final say on most decisions. It may be helpful to point out at this point that, since the association is a non-profit corporation, no one on the board of directors gets paid for their service.
Next, review how the board operates. Explain the board holds meetings during which they conduct association business. Tell members that the association also holds an annual meeting of all members, during which they get a chance to participate, and they get to vote for board members at that meeting.

Finally, review the role of the management company and list the functions the management company handles.

6.     Question and answer session. It’s a good idea to keep the orientation to no longer than 90 minutes, and to reserve about 20 minutes at the end of the presentation for a question and answer period.