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As San Francisco real estate agents, we are often asked about condo homeowners associations, aka HOAs, by our home buyer clients. What are they? What do they do? What do they cover? Is it a waste of money? And so forth.

Let’s start with the basics!

Homeowners Associations in San Francisco

A homeowners association is the organization formed to run and maintain a subdivision or planned unit development, such as a condo, townhome, gated community or neighborhood subdivision. In San Francisco, condos are the most common forms of HOA, though there are a few neighborhoods of single-family homes that have annual fees. (Think St Francis Woods.)

Members of the HOA (i.e. the owners) are obligated to pay fees to their HOA. The fee amount, and what it covers, vary from one association to the next. As well as fees, there are rules! The homeowners association is governed by its CC&Rs (Covenants, Codes and Restrictions), a legal document filed with the county recorder’s office.

While the oversight of HOAs is minimal in most states, California has a body of HOA laws that mostly serve to protect homeowners. As Realtors, we cannot offer legal advice about HOAs, but we can offer guidelines about the types of questions you should ask when you are thinking of buying a condo in San Francisco.

The Benefits of Homeowners Associations in San Francisco

Being part of a collective like an HOA does come with certain benefits for a homeowner. The benefits of an HOA can include:

  • Common area maintenance and property management services
  • Garbage and water service (and sometimes other utilities)
  • Community activities and engagement
  • Building insurance coverage
  • Recreational amenities such as pools, gyms, outdoor kitchens and other common areas
  • Adherence to community standards for both the building’s appearance and occupants’ behavior (like pet policies or short-term rental restrictions)

In smaller HOAs, such as the many San Francisco Victorian and Edwardian buildings of ~two to four units, the homeowners association is often quite casual. Still governed by the CC&Rs, you may find that there is no outside property management and that bills are split and paid as they come. The larger high-rises, like those in SoMa and South Beach, will have professional management and more perks (and higher dues). There are pros and cons to each.

Shopping for a condo? Here are good questions to ask about the HOA

The Vivre Real Estate team works with many San Francisco condo buyers. In 20+ years and 800+ home sales in the SF Bay Area market, we’ve come up with a list of frequently asked questions about the condo association. Here are some of the most common questions our Realtors are asked about homeowners associations in San Francisco.

Am I able to rent out my unit?

The answer to this question will vary by HOA. Ask whether or not there are any rental restrictions, for either short-term rentals (under 30 days) or long-term rentals (typically 6 months or more). You can also ask how many units in the building are currently rented. Banks have restrictions on the ratio of owner-occupied to rental units, so you’ll want to know in advance.

What is the pet policy?

Considering there are more dogs in San Francisco than children, the answer to this one affects many prospective homeowners. In fact, the question is so common that we like to get ahead of it by posting the pet policy directly in the MLS agent remarks!

The answer is good news for pet lovers: California law prohibits condo deed restrictions against keeping pets. The Davis-Stirling Act states that no condo association can prohibit a unit owner from keeping at least one pet, subject to the HOA rules. (Civ. Code §4715) In legalese, “pet” is defined for these purposes as any domesticated dog, cat, bird, aquatic animal kept in an aquarium, or other animal agreed upon by the HOA and the unit owner. However, the HOA may limit the number, size and breed of pet the owner may keep.

Service animals must always be permitted. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows people with disabilities to bring their service animals wherever the public is allowed.

Why are the HOA dues so high?

HOA dues in San Francisco range from approximately $175 per month on the low end, all the way to $2000+ per month. As you might imagine, the dues for a Noe Valley duplex with no elevator, no doorman and no saline swimming pool will be lower than those for a penthouse at Lumina with all the luxury-high-rise bells and whistles.

In general, HOA dues go toward the costs to maintain and manage the building. This can include property insurance, water, garbage, landscaping and management of the HOA itself. An amount is also set aside to maintain a “reserve account,” which pays for bigger-ticket maintenance items like exterior painting, installing a new roof, etc.

If the operating budget is too low with no reserves set aside, the costs for unexpected needs will be placed suddenly on the HOA members in the form of a special assessment, which can be quite the financial shock if members aren’t prepared.

Some associations choose not to keep reserves so that the monthly fee is low. If you buy into a building like this, you get to keep more of your money each month—but be prepared to share the costs of maintenance, as things inevitably happen over time.

What are the restrictions on home remodeling and alterations?

Each homeowners association in San Francisco will have its own restrictions on remodeling and unit alterations. For the most part, you can do what you want within the walls of your unit, as long as your remodel doesn’t adversely affect the structural integrity of the building or the architectural appeal from the outside. You may be required to submit architectural plans before beginning work, and of course, you are expected to perform work to code with licensed contractors.

Which Home (and Homeowners association) in San Francisco is Right For You?

If you arrived on this blog looking for info on San Francisco homeowners associations, we hope this helped. (And if you didn’t, well, kudos for sticking with it!) Homeowners associations are just one of the intricacies of buying a home in San Francisco that can seem overwhelming all at once, but really aren’t so bad when you have a trusted real estate advisor by your side. Of course, when the time comes to buy or sell, we’d love for that to be us!

While you’re here, feel free to check out our latest articles, meet our boutique team of top SF real estate agents, and definitely sign up for our twice-monthly, always interesting email newsletter by providing your email address below.

If you have a question about HOAs in SF, or any other aspect of buying or selling property in the Bay Area, we are here to serve. Click here to contact us whenever is convenient.

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