Budget Blunders and Bloopers: Ensuring Your Budget's Success
Read our guide and Unlock 8 secrets to better budget management
Association board members must learn how to manage the budget process effectively. In fact, it’s one of your main responsibilities. At FirstService Residential Texas, we want to help you ensure your community’s financial success.
Thinking ahead to the fresh start of a new fiscal year is both exhilarating and tedious. As a board member, you're in tune with your association's needs and your residents' expectations. But before you begin outlining the financial steps for your community, keep these 7 HOA budget bloopers in mind as you honor your fiduciary duty.
1. Planning for the best, not forecasting the worst.Going into your HOAs budget plan with a positive attitude will, no doubt, make the outline process a bit smoother. You want what's financially best for your community, but it's just as important to anticipate events that could send your budget into a tailspin.
For instance, before the recent pandemic became an all-too-real fact of life, you were most likely confident that your budget accounted for every expense, money was carefully allocated, and special assessments and reserve funds were accounted for. But as many have experienced over the past couple of years, global events can change nearly every aspect of what "normal" looks like.
None of us could have imagined the added sanitation and maintenance costs, missed dues, and a general feeling of "when will this end?".
The jury is still out in terms of exactly how many associations were financially impacted and how different their budget plans for next year will look with an ever-changing environment. We can only hope that an event like a pandemic won't happen again, but the fact remains that optimism and preparation aren't enough to expect the unexpected.
But the saying, "It's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it," speaks directly to the cautious optimism that comes with HOA budget planning. Consider reserve funds or special assessments. Designed to be your association's "in case of emergency" button for unplanned events, having these in place can help offset devastating losses and keep your community aesthetically and financially fit.
However, there are several ways to handle financial shortfalls, including emergency lines of credit and preferred rates on short-term loans. Be sure to explore all options with your management company and legal advisor before pressing the red button.
This is a perfect segue into why raising dues are critical to the financial stability of an HOA. Although no one likes a surprise bill, planning for potential repairs or updating amenities via slowly increased dues isn't just an effective way to cover anticipated costs. It also allows your reserve fund to truly be your "emergency button." As a community leader, it's not just your responsibility to make these decisions but also to make them with clarity.
2. Raising dues without transparency.
Inflation is a common occurrence that affects everyone, HOA budget or not. And like the price of gas, groceries and cell phones rise regularly, a news article typically precedes the financial impact, allowing people to adjust their personal finances, separate their needs from wants and live accordingly. This should be the model when it comes to raising dues.
Give advanced notice of the increase, talk about where the money will go, why it's happening and when residents can expect the change. Transparency as a board member gives you a leg to stand on and builds trust between residents and community leaders.
But don't just provide one notice and expect it to stick. Make multiple attempts to remind homeowners. Remember that we live in a time when some of us have trouble remembering what we ate for breakfast this morning. The more you communicate the "who," "what," "when," and "why," your association can expect to continue down the path of financial stability and understanding.
As a board member, knowing who you do business with is essential. As a community, how will potential homebuyers know where to find you? What vendors do you trust to maintain your amenities and landscaping? Where you spend your money and how it's spent is just as important as how you budget it.
3. Not keeping it local.
Depending on your property management partner, your community's business relationships should feel personal and natural. For example, suppose a property management company manages your community. In that case, they should have a reservoir of resources, countless vendor partnerships and solid relationships that can be leveraged to ensure your association gets a valued service at reasonable, or even below market, prices.
Additionally, if you're considering a property management partnership, word-of-mouth is still an effective form of marketing. Albeit grassroots efforts to build and maintain vendor relationships take much more time, the benefits can be the same. As a community leader, it's important to be in tune with homeowners and have those same connections with businesses in your area.
You've built relationships with local businesses or trusted your property management company to find the best vendors, marketing tools and maintenance services to keep your community running smoothly.
4. Not reevaluating fixed expenses.
Regardless of how you choose to make these decisions, it's wise not to assume that the costs of these services won't change over time. Just think of the evolution of a board's role year after year. New challenges and needs suddenly become a part of the discussion. This leads to more meetings, more planning and more money. From the vendor's point of view, their clientele is growing, and they've expanded their catalog of services. In that same vein, these yearly changes often involve a different business model with higher rates.
As you start preparing your budget, make room for normal inflation of prices. If you have a property management company, trust their experts to provide you with updates and tailored recommendations in line with your budget and, more importantly, your community's needs. Check in with these businesses to get a detailed price list. We recommend reviewing your vendors annually or requesting other bids for similar work to see if there are less expensive options in the market.
If you've stayed on top of costly community equipment, you're already aware of its shelf life. If it's almost time to replace such equipment, be sure you know the replacement cost and communicate with residents about the value of the replacement and why, if unexpected, a special assessment is necessary to accommodate residents’ lifestyles.
5. Excluding special assessments.
Keep in mind that special assessments are not to be used in emergencies — that’s what effective HOA budget planning and increased dues are designed for. In your notices to residents, make it clear about the difference between the two, so everyone remains aligned.
Need more info? Check out our 3-part series of how to approach special assessments.
This is another line item that can't be ignored. Consider what your association has experienced in the last year. What coverage did you wish you had? Whether it's weather or amenity-related, think of ways to keep your community properly insured without worrying about an unplanned expense. Once you've laid out a pattern of your association's most common insurance needs, boards should also include coverage packages that protect them from hidden dangers.
6. Not updating insurance.
Again, dealing with the recent changes in our economy has surely borne a "new normal.”. Outlining your coverage should be the first step to understanding how to protect your community at all costs.
So what are the next steps?
- Review these coverages with trusted advisors who can further explain the value of these security blankets. It's easy to state, "Better safe than sorry," but community leaders.
- Gain full knowledge of the powers included in each policy and how they'll benefit your association and strengthen your overall HOA budget.
- If you're an HOA in partnership with a property management company, tap into their resources, and leverage their buying power to get the best rates for the right coverage.
This is easier said than done. With the help of a property management company, boards should take full advantage of their financial resources, CPAs, and standard operating procedures to guarantee accurate recordkeeping, including how often you can review financial reports and where residents can access this information.
7. Not keeping records.
This is the other side of budget transparency. It's not enough to tell homeowners that their money was well spent; you have to show the "after," too. Property management partners' accounting services can help outline how much of your association's money goes to community maintenance. Plus, accurate recordkeeping is a solid paper trail in case financial snags happen down the line or if you simply want to compare budget line items with official financial reports.
These 7 HOA budget blunders, while seemingly unavoidable, often aren't. However, keeping each of these guidelines in the driver's seat is fundamental as you carefully act out your fiduciary responsibility as a board member.