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Homeowner Rights and Protecting Your Property Value: An Interview with Peter Smith of Dhillon & Smith LLP

By Harold P. Smith

Tell us a little bit about your experience and the services you offer.

I have been a trial attorney for 28 years. Most of my practice concerns resolving disputes promptly. Sometimes I do this on behalf of clients; other times as a mediator. The types of matters vary widely, but the majority of my work involves real estate and corporate disputes.

What are two or three of the biggest concerns for Bay Area homeowners when it comes to protecting their legal rights?

Concerns over legal rights arise most frequently when a homeowner buys a property, does a substantial modification to a property, or sells a property. When a homeowner buys a property, it is important to know as much about the property as possible, including its problems, and to understand your relationship with a lender. When a homeowner does a substantial construction project, it is essential to understand one's legal rights with respect to the architect and contractors. It is also essential to understand what a city or other agency will permit. Finally, at the time of a sale, the homeowner must carefully and fully disclose all material problems that a property might have.

Can you briefly describe how a Homeowner Association or similar entity typically affects a homeowner or condominium owner in a subdivision or planned unit?

A Homeowner Association charges fees and, in general, is responsible for maintaining common improvements (such as the roof on a multi-unit condominium) and common areas (such as a community center) and for approving modifications to houses or units. It is essential that the association maintain adequate reserves to pay for long term improvements. For instance, a roof may need to be replaced every 20 years. It is important for the association to save up for the roof replacement. Any property owner in an association should review the budget and reserves along with the long term maintenance, repair and replace plans of the association.

Is there something that most people not know about HOAs in the Bay Area that they should consider before buying a house or condo that is subject to HOA rules and regulations?

Each HOA will have slightly different rules. A property owner should study the rules and regulations of the HOA before deciding whether to buy. If the rules are too restrictive, it might make a remodel difficult. If the rules are too liberal, one of the other owners might remodel or build in a manner that would have an impact on your property.

What are some of the most common property issues that you've seen happen between homeowners and a government agency?

The most common issue concerns work that was performed without a permit where a permit is required. Not all construction work requires a permit. However, when a permit is required, then it is important to get one. If work is performed without a permit and the City finds out, they may require the work to be removed and they will certainly charge penalties to have the work permitted after the fact. Another issue that can come up is where work is permitted pursuant to plans, but the actual construction varies from the permitted plans. In such cases, the city can require removal of completed work or refuse to sign off on the completed construction which can cause problems with lenders and future buyers.

What basic steps would you advise a homeowner to take if they are experiencing one of those issues?

The most important thing is to bring the property into compliance. A city can be flexible and might change its mind on some issues. However, once all of the negotiating with the city is completed, it is important to make any necessary changes and to get the city to sign off on the construction. This can be expensive, but it never gets cheaper with time. If the city is unreasonable, then it makes sense to hire an attorney.

What's the best way for people to reach you and your practice?

I can be reached at my firm: Dhillon & Smith. My email is psmith@dhillonsmith.com. My telephone number is (415) 682-6814.

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About The Author

Peter is an accomplished litigator and advisor to a wide variety of corporate and...

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