• Family Frustrated After HOA Foreclosed Home For Unpaid Dues

    GASTON COUNTY, N.C.,None - More than five years after they moved into a new home in Ranlo, Darin and Michelle Roberts got a retroactive bill for homeowners association dues they'd never paid, but apparently never knew they owed.

    That was in 2009.

    And two years after ongoing legal discussions and failed payment arrangements, the couple and their two children are boxing up their belongings and preparing to move. The Mountain View HOA board foreclosed on their house in April, and sent a notice July 11 that the family had 10 days to vacate.

    Michelle Roberts says her family fell victim to an HOA board that refused to recognize the financial hardship they were experiencing. The board held them to unfair expectations of paying not only the original dues that were in arrears, she said, but also the charges that mounted from attorney hours, court filings and assessments.

    Additional fees have taken the $975 they originally owed for HOA dues and mushroomed their debt to more than $6,000. It's money they don't have, she said.

    "We're just middle-class people, trying to keep our heads above water, raise a family and do the right thing," said Roberts, who is moving with her family, a dog and a cat into her parents' home in Gastonia until they can find a permanent apartment. "We've lost everything. It's a travesty that they have a right to do this over $1,000 that was their mistake in the first place."

    The Mountain View HOA board is represented by the Charlotte law firm Sellers, Hinshaw, Ayers, Dortch and Lyons. Tim Sellers, the firm's founding attorney, said while they sympathize with the Roberts' situation, every attempt was made to allow the family to settle up over the last two years.

    After the firm began attempting to retrieve the $975 in dues, several months passed with no payment from the homeowners before other fees began to kick in, Sellers said. The Robertses agreed to a payment plan at one point, but didn't live up to the terms. And it was made clear to them what was coming down the pike, he said.

    "We deal with this kind of situation a lot," said Sellers. "At our firm, we try to be vigilant before taking any step about communicating things as clearly as possible and trying to work out an agreement."

    Sudden debt

    The now-foreclosed home at 104 Ranlo Ave. was owned by Roberts' father. The Robertses gained permission to work out the payment issues with the law firm directly.

    HOA dues in Mountain View are $175 a year. But the HOA board realized in early summer 2009 no dues had been paid since the family moved in. That's apparently because the house was built by the now-defunct company KB Homes, which built some lots in the subdivision but never reported the sales of the homes, Sellers said. So an annual bill was never sent to 104 Ranlo Ave.

    "Often builders are exempt from assessments, so they're not paying," he said. "So until the association or manager gets notice from the builder that the home has been sold, they have no reason to know someone's in there and should be paying (HOA dues)."

    Roberts said she and her husband were shocked to learn they owed $975. She said they assumed, perhaps naively, their HOA dues were being worked into their escrow, along with their homeowners insurance.

    "It's not like we wouldn't have paid $175 a year," she said. "That's relatively inexpensive. We thought it was a big misunderstanding."

    On the Mountain View HOA's behalf, the law firm investigated the public record and found that the lender involved with the Roberts' home had filed foreclosure against it in October 2009, Sellers said. The HOA filed a lien itself, but then waited for that issue to pan out. In December 2009, they learned that foreclosure had been dismissed.

    "So we began taking steps to start the enforcement process and collect those association dues," Sellers said.

    But the Robertses didn't make their initial payment of $880 toward the debt until May 28, 2010. By that time, almost a year had passed since the overdue HOA assessments had been discovered, and fees associated with the pursuit of that debt had begun to mount, Sellers said.

    "The (HOA) said, ‘We're not getting any payment, so we've got to move forward,'" he said.

    HOAs have legal power to foreclose

    In North Carolina, HOAs can file foreclosure against homeowners who do not pay their dues — something the Roberts couple was not aware of until recently. The Mountain View HOA board initiated that filing prior to May. The two parties worked out a written payment installment agreement that led to the foreclosure being dismissed.

    But by that time, the filing fees and associated attorney costs had jacked the Roberts' debt up to some $3,000.

    Roberts said she and her husband were frustrated by the additional costs they incurred. Each time they requested a new payment plan, they were charged $45. Fees for the filings and the work done by paralegals and attorneys mounted.

    "It's like they were saying that $888 we had to beg, borrow and steal to get to them was a drop in the bucket," she said. "The attorneys are billing you every time they do anything."

    Both parties agreed to another payment plan in the following months. It involved paying $1,100 up front and exhausting the rest of the debt in four ensuing payments. But the family was unable to handle that. Roberts said her husband had already taken four substantial pay cuts in his Charlotte banking position. Her gourmet food business had essentially gone under, and her father was battling cancer.

    The payment plans also show no mercy and allow for no partial payments. If they're not followed rigidly, more fees and penalties are levied, Roberts said.

    "Any time we attempted to send less than what they wanted, they said don't even bother," she said.

    No breakdown of costs

    Sellers said he feels the Roberts family was adequately informed of the fees that were about to be added at each juncture. That's done, he said, to "make sure people know this is really significant."

    "From our perspective as attorneys, our clients and manager are sending considerable correspondence in trying to get people to talk to them about what they owe," he said.

    The more than $6,000 the HOA says it is owed is based on legitimate expenses that have been incurred from the beginning, Sellers said. But when the Robertses asked for an itemized list of the dues and fees that made up that sum July 20, they were denied by Michelle Abney, a paralegal at Sellers' firm.

    "A breakdown cannot be provided; this is the amount needed to purchase the home back from the HOA," Abney wrote in an email to Darin Roberts. "The HOA is the owner of the property now, so they can chose (sic) to sell the property for whatever amount they want with no explanation given."

    Michelle Roberts said she believes many homeowners fail to realize the power that North Carolina HOAs have in pursuing legal action for unpaid dues. She wants more people to take notice of that, and also hopes her family can eventually land on its feet.

    "We're packing up now," she said. "I kept hoping for a miracle, but it's not happening."

    Click here to read more stories from Channel 9's newspaper partner, the Gaston Gazette.

    Next Up: