Homeowner associations can get a bad reputation, especially since they’re often portrayed in movies and memes as a club of nosy neighbors looking for something to nitpick. Contrary to popular media, it seems most people enjoy the perks of belonging to HOAs.
Not only were a majority of people in 2022 satisfied with their HOA benefits, but the number of people joining HOAs is expected to rise in 2023, according to a Foundation for Community Association Research study.
Common Issues with HOAs and Hot Tubs
HOAs are private groups governed and funded by neighborhood residents. Each HOA can have different rules and priorities, but generally, the fees pay for neighborhood amenities and maintenance. The governing members oversee hiring companies like landscapers and trash providers, organize community events and enforce property standards. While having these rules protects both a property’s value and its owner from living next to an eyesore, spa dealers and their customers can end up tangoing with HOA boards.
Nathan Coelho, vice president of engineering for Master Spas in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says a common issue occurs when an HOA mistakenly categorizes a hot tub or swim spa as an above-ground pool and denies a homeowner approval to install the product on their property.
It is a problem, and many excited swim spa buyers get disappointed to find out that their HOA misinterprets its covenants and denies swim spas because it tries to classify them as an above-ground pool instead of the premium product that they are. Generally, the intent is to prevent big, blue, very temporary looking pools in higher-class developments. That is not the product that our segment of the industry manufactures.”
Nathan Coelho, Master Spas
“It is a problem, and many excited swim spa buyers get disappointed to find out that their HOA misinterprets its covenants and denies swim spas because it tries to classify them as an above-ground pool,” Coelho explains. “Generally, the intent is to prevent big, blue, very temporary looking pools in higher-class developments. That is not the product that our segment of the industry manufactures.”
From completely denying installation to imposing safety requirements meant for pools, the responses can vary depending on an HOA’s or city inspector’s interpretation of the rules and their willingness to be corrected or informed.
Ted Dellas, president of LeisureTime Warehouse in Wickliffe, Ohio, says some homeowners may not review the entire HOA agreement if membership is a requirement when purchasing the property. When someone feels like they have no choice but to join, they may not review their agreement until the need arises. Customers who don’t can get caught off-guard when they’re not anticipating the questions their HOA may have about their new spa purchase.
“I have spent a bunch of time and money with our attorneys to come up with a strategy as to how to deal with HOAs,” Dellas says. “In some instances, you can’t fight city hall, and if that is the case, the customer either complies or moves.”
Dellas explains that if an agreement is written to the advantage of the association and the HOA is not receptive to further explanation, then the homeowner may be out of luck, especially if the HOA has a larger budget and can retain legal counsel.
“I have found that in some instances it becomes very personal, and the person or persons who have the authority become obnoxious and the ‘weight of authority’ becomes a factor,” Dellas explains.
If the agreement is vague or the definition of what the customer wants to do is incorrect or not addressed, “The question becomes, ‘To what extent does the customer want to push the issue?’ ” Dellas says.
Rick Wright, service manager at Crocker Sales in Woburn, Massachusetts, points out swim spas are more often mistaken for pools than hot tubs because they’re a bigger item.
“It’s much easier for an inspector to classify that as a pool,” he says. “Each town can interpret things a little bit differently.”
Wright has gotten directly involved with inspectors before, but once an inspector has made their decision, he says that’s usually the final say.
The topic of HOA agreements doesn’t normally come up during the initial part of a sale, but Wright says his team makes sure customers know what’s going to be required on their end, and his team answers questions to the best of their knowledge. If a customer hits a snag with their HOA later on, Wright says his team provides forms, UL certifications and any other clarifying safety information to help their customers address HOA concerns.
Best Practices for Communicating with an HOA
Dellas explains each situation is different and advises dealers to be thorough in their preparation.
“That’s how we handle each individual situation: being correct, being patient, being very upfront, being legal and always asking permission … not for forgiveness,” he says.
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“I’ve been involved in perhaps 100 HOA situations and have learned to know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em. My advice to any customer is to read their HOA agreement and if they want our help, to send a copy.”
Dealers and customers should avoid being the first to say anything relating to “pool” or “above-ground pool” and make sure any requests submitted for a permit or HOA approval refer to the unit as a swim spa and never an above-ground pool.
Dealers can also encourage customers to review their HOA agreements, but Coelho warns being proactive with all the available information can be a tricky situation to navigate.
“On one hand, you don’t want to be so proactive with your request that you create a question with the HOA that might not have otherwise been asked,” Coelho says. “For example, if the homeowner were to submit a request to install the swim spa, would the HOA have any reason to think that the swim spa is an above-ground pool in the first place?”
If that information is shared prematurely, Coelho warns it could create doubt within the HOA. Dealers and customers should use good judgment and only submit that kind of information to the HOA upfront if the customer knows in advance that the issue will arise.
“Ideally, if the HOA is willing to meet with the homeowner and maybe the retailer on site, that would be best,” Coelho suggests. “People tend to be more understanding face to face as opposed to a request in an email.”
When the meeting takes place, Coelho recommends starting with pictures of a common installation where the swim spa does not look out of place in a backyard.
For HOAs that still are not convinced, Jim Furlong, manager of Ohio Pools and Spas, recommends explaining why the homeowner wants to have a spa installed. “I have spoken to several [HOAs] on the customer’s behalf,” he says. “I like to state that the customer is buying one for the health benefits. It is hard for them then to deny the customer pain relief or family time.”
One way Master Spas navigates these conversations is by providing documents to customers. The first letter, written by Coelho, is intended to help dealers, public health officials, permitting officials and HOAs correctly and accurately classify exercise and factory-built spas.
The letter reviews the differences between spas and pools and provides codes and certifications. It not only explains the practical differences — size, plumbing and internal components and locking covers that are UL listed — it also addresses the aesthetic differences, a main cause for concern in the first place.
“Our product is carefully engineered to not be confused with an above-ground pool,” the letter states. “The fact that you can swim in a swim spa is not a reason to define a swim spa as a pool. There are many bodies of water that can be used to swim in that are not swimming pools and should not be rationale for classifying a swim spa as a pool.”
The second letter Master Spas provides to customers is from The Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. As members, Master Spas has access to extra resources. Coelho suggests dealers consider joining for the extra support PHTA provides its members.
“It is a small price to pay to be a member, and the value that the PHTA brings to the table on issues like this pays for itself,” he says.
The letter from PHTA is a statement on the classification of exercise spas and features frequently asked questions along with photos that show the aesthetic appeal of the product.
Equipped with what to say and what not to say, dealers and customers can confidently approach these conversations and misunderstandings with HOAs.
Coelho encourages dealers to be humble and go into these situations with a positive attitude.
“The typical HOA group knows little about pools and spas and are trying to serve their community to the letter of the rule[s] they have in place,” he says. “When people go in with a bad attitude and a sense of arrogance, it can quickly turn into a power struggle, and that is never going to be a good situation.”