Many homeowners associations choose to remain self managed—and once you experience HOA life first hand, you may decide to contribute to those management efforts. Self-managed HOAs call on the dedicated contributions of residents who volunteer as administrators to help their HOA prosper. These administrators rely on a combination of well-structured rules and covenants to provide obvious answers to common questions and workable direction for property modifications. Additionally, these HOAs maintain all their own documentation, meeting minutes, payment records, amenity reservations, and more. And to support all these efforts, a self-managed community needs the right HOA software.
So you’ve moved into a community development that’s managed by an HOA. If this is the first homeowners association you’ve experienced, you may not have considered the pros and cons of an HOA, but you’ll quickly see that streets filled with well-maintained properties—and high property values—make the small concessions of HOA life more than worthwhile. You might not have understood the purpose of HOA dues before, but now you see the value of supporting community infrastructure such as roads, green space, amenities, and common areas through a modest regular contribution to community value. In fact, you might even decide to get involved in community governance and help your HOA as an administrator. That’s when you really see what’s involved in running a community.
What keeps an HOA operating smoothly?
Some homeowners associations sign up with a community association management company, which handles some or all of the administrative functions of the development. These companies can handle dues and fees, violations of community covenants, and all aspects of resident management. They select and supervise vendors who provide services to maintain the property and assist community residents. They guide the board of directors to create new rules and modify existing regulations. By comparison to self-managed HOAs, homeowners associations that work with management companies delegate much of their work to these companies in exchange for paying a fee.
In addition to its administrative functions, a community association management company also provides direct benefits for residents. A management company may supply an online portal through which residents can obtain community information and make online dues payments. The typical management company portal doesn’t offer much, if anything, in the way of community-specific customization, and the experience typically is fairly utilitarian. That’s one reason communities may break away from one management company, try another, and finally conclude that they’d rather take care of these administrative functions themselves.
The self-managed route for community associations
Before HOA software became the de facto answer to any HOA’s self-management needs, most HOAs relied on a traditional set of analog, manual processes. Invoices went out in the mail, or–in smaller communities—administrators might even distribute them in person, going door to door. Dues payments came in through the mail as well, or residents dropped them off at a community clubhouse. Amenity scheduling relied on a sign-up sheet thumbtacked to a cork board in a clubhouse meeting room—or, worse yet, one administrator maintained the list and everyone who wanted a reservation had to contact that individual to sign up. Any time a resident requested a copy of a document, an administrator had to photocopy an original and deliver or mail out the copy.
Not only were all these manual methods cumbersome, but they left plenty of room for compliance to go astray and complaints to mount up. Most of the excesses of homeowners association administration have stemmed from situations in which board members held complete power and community residents lacked the means to instigate checks and balances. With HOA software, these horror stories are past history because the software builds in transparency.
What can HOA software do for you, your community, and your fellow administrators?
The best way to answer that question is to begin with a real understanding of what this software category does and how it benefits your efforts. So what is HOA software anyway, and how does it work?
For starters, the laws in some states require that homeowners associations with more than a specific number of properties create and maintain a website that presents specific categories of community information to the public. This includes documentation about Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs) and other aspects of community regulation. If you’re in one of those states and your HOA is large enough for the law to regulate this aspect of its operations, you’ll need a website whether or not you really think you want one.
But once you see what you can accomplish with HOA software, chances are good you won’t wait for state law to force your hand. For starters, most modern HOA software operates in a web browser or mobile app. Once you log in, you gain access to administrative controls that provide community information and updates, set up and invoice dues and fees, share essential documents, accept secure online payments, schedule amenity reservations and neighborhood event registrations, and much more.
Once residents sign up for website membership and log in, they can access members-only features that enable them to see their payment status, pay their dues with a card or ACH debit, put in a request for architectural modifications, report a covenant violation, and chat privately with fellow members. The software greets them by name, presents them with all and only the data to which their internally developed privileges entitle them, and gives them access to the information they need to make informed contributions to the life of their community.
For administrators, the “behind-the-scenes” view makes it easy to manage dues, architectural modification requests, and violations, provide updates, send out customized e-mail messages, manage requests for membership, and so on. A secure document repository provides essential files available for download at any time. Visibility and access restrictions make specific content available only to members with appropriate login credentials based on their subdivision location, their committee enrollments, and more.
Meanwhile, the public face of the website markets the advantages of your community and tells your neighborhood story. If your community previously developed a marketing website, it probably provided the equivalent of an online brochure, with no other administrative features to provide greater value. By contrast, self-managed HOA software incorporates these marketing features along with a long list of other capabilities.
What makes a good HOA website?
From a user perspective, the gold standard is intuitive navigation and compelling content. Ideally, you should be able to figure out how to use the website without too much instruction or assistance. Menu items should be labeled clearly, with pages distributed logically throughout the navigation system. Essential information should be easy to find.
From a design perspective, free HOA website templates speed up the task of creating professional page layouts for all types of site content. The best HOA website platforms incorporate a website builder that offers a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface that enables you to see your page content as you add it and know exactly how your site will present it. These templates should handle expected information categories, such as a roster of board members complete with photos and contact information, a member directory with opt-in presentation of personal information, and a wide variety of community input forms for everything from routine contact to violation reporting and ARC requests. It’s also important for your HOA websites builder to make content additions, revisions, and deletions easy to accomplish.
So why should a homeowners association prioritize having a website?
For starters, top HOA management software enables you to automate repetitive processes such as billing, payment reminders, and amenity reservations. You can accept resident payments online with secure processing. You can track virtually every aspect of community administration through data files you can download and analyze in your favorite spreadsheet program. Your site provides community information and markets your HOA’s unique attributes through publicly accessible pages that tell your story.
The best way to find the right HOA website software through which to build your website and manage community affairs is through online research. Of course, if you know people in other self-managed HOAs, you can ask them which products they use, and how satisfied they are with the software selections they’ve made. But you’ll always want to research these products yourselves to ensure that you know exactly what you’re choosing.
Do your homework
When you sit down to select top HOA management software, you have two tasks ahead of you: First, figure out what you need, and second, find the products and providers that offer what you expect these resources to provide. To do that, you’ll need to brainstorm all the ways you want your HOA management software to work, including the manual tasks you want to automate and the online security you want to incorporate.
Survey your fellow administrators, ask your residents for input, and compile all the responses, ranked by how many people requested each feature. This type of community poll can help you zero in on what you need. It’s also helpful to look at the websites of other homeowners associations to see which types of design features they incorporate that look useful for your community’s online presentation.
Venture into the marketplace
The most important next step comes when you actually shop for HOA management software. Remember that this is the backbone of your community management toolbox, and plan to be choosy. Although open-source HOA software may look like a simple, inexpensive way to manage community affairs, you may not be able to find an open-source provider whose offerings combine the flexibility, security, and versatility you need. The products may wind up being a disappointment because they lack the development efforts and finesse that commercial software packages embody out of competitive necessity.
The same thing holds true for free HOA management software. Most of the options you’ll see advertised as “free HOA software” actually are stripped down introductory versions of paid plans, minus most of their features. Providers who take this approach use these “free” plans to attract potential customers, who then find out that if they want the full functionality of the software, they’ll need to pay individually for additional features. These same limitations hold true regardless of whether you’re looking for free condo management software or free HOA management software.
When a bargain isn't really a bargain
The paradox of all these software categories is that if you place low cost at the top of your list of priorities, you’ll actually end up spending more or switching providers out of frustration at the limitations of products that look as if they ought to be able to do what you want but don’t actually live up to their promises. That’s because by the time you add individual features that aren’t part of the free HOA software, each feature increases your software fees—and if the software provider has portioned out all its features, your eventual cost probably will wind up being much higher than if you’d simply selected a dedicated HOA website software provider that didn’t force you to pay extra for regular features.
One aspect of HOA management software selection that you should expect to obtain free of charge is a trial period, in which you typically have access to the full feature set of the software product you’re considering. Use this free trial period wisely, and make sure to experiment with all the features that match up with your expectations so you can ensure that you know what you’ll get and will be happy with it if you choose to sign up with that specific provider.
Whether yours is a small HOA or a large community, you want software that offers you the best combination of functionality, features, flexibility, versatility, and cost effectiveness. You also want in-depth help assets that can guide you through common procedures and assist you in understanding how to use the user interface. Additionally, look for guided onboarding support through specialized professionals who assist new customers through their initial setup phases. As you select and interact with each self-managed HOA software provider on your list of candidates, ask about the pace of new feature development, the receptiveness to customer input in selecting new features to incorporate, and the mechanisms through which you can ask for troubleshooting assistance if some aspect of the software appears to malfunction.
After you’ve auditioned a range of software resources and evaluated them against your list of needs, how do you make the right choices—and what else do you need to consider besides features and costs? Is the choice of self-managed HOA software the only selection you need to make?
The role of HOA accounting software
Actually, there’s more to it. When you look for HOA management software, it’s important to consider your community’s accounting and bookkeeping needs at the same time. After all, the financial professionals with whom you work rely on you and the rest of your administrative colleagues to provide them with complete, accurate financial data that fully represents your community’s fiscal affairs. Otherwise, how can they do a thorough, reliable job of preparing taxes and other financial instruments for you?
While you choose your HOA management software, you’re also looking for the best HOA accounting software—and part of the way you find the right options is to look for HOA management software that interacts with the best HOA accounting software. Beyond the quest for the best HOA website builder with free HOA website templates and essential community management features, you want an HOA website platform with well-managed connectivity to your financial management software.
Although you’ll find many financial software packages that work well with HOAs, one of the best known is Intuit QuickBooks. If you’ve never used QuickBooks before, or haven’t seen it in a while, the new face of this software is QuickBooks Online. Where the prior Desktop edition of QuickBooks maintained your financial data on your local computer, the newest editions of the software use cloud data storage—internet-accessible mass storage on remote servers—to make your information instantly retrievable on any authorized device.
This way, each HOA administrator involved with your copy of QuickBooks can access your data from anywhere, including at home, at work, or even on vacation. As a result, all of your administrators with responsibilities for financial recording and reporting can review data simultaneously without having to gather together in one location and peer over someone’s shoulder to do it. This convenience factor is a big advantage—and the built-in security of the platform protects your valuable confidential information from compromise.
If you decide to opt for QuickBooks in conjunction with your community management software, you’ll also have to decide which version of QuickBooks works best for you. Intuit offers several different editions of QuickBooks, each priced at various monthly or annual fee levels. You can sign up for a 30-day free trial to see whether this well-known product is the right choice for your community. If you decide that it is, which version of QuickBooks you choose depends on the amount of feature performance you need, whether you prefer a mobile-only plan, and which computer operating systems (MacOS and Windows) you need to support. Once again, your accountant or bookkeeper can be an invaluable asset in assisting you through your plan selection phase.
Two powerful tools working together
So what do you get out of the combination of QuickBooks and self-managed HOA software? The marriage of these two powerful software categories can give you a powerful, easy-to-use software platform that takes care of all your self-managed HOA software needs at the same time that it tracks all your financial data and simplifies the preparation of reports. Close integration between QuickBooks and your HOA software ensures that you capture all your financial data into the right financial categories.
In the end, you'll need to be able to share accurate financial data with your members as well as with your accountant, so the addition of financial management to your HOA software capabilities rounds out your HOA's needs with powerful options. Financial transparency is an important aspect of proper HOA administration, management, and community performance. Each property owner within your community makes a financial commitment to the welfare of the HOA as a whole, as well as to the value of their individual property. As a result, HOA administration is responsible for providing full and accurate financial reporting that captures the "health status" of your community and presents that information to residents.
How to evaluate self-managed HOA software and QuickBooks for condo associations and co-ops
Along with traditional homeowners associations, in which each property owner buys a free-standing single-family residence on a plot of land, the combination of self-managed HOA software and QuickBooks can handle financial management for condo associations and co-ops. The legal definition of a condo or a co-op is different from the legal definition of a traditional HOA, but all of these types of managed communities need to take care of the same types of assets, expenses, dues, and resident interactions.
In fact, top HOA management software is designed specifically to accommodate the needs of any type of managed property development, whether it involves single-family residences or multi-family property. Each type of managed community collects dues through an assessment, maintains a reserve fund to cover major or unexpected repairs, reports its financial dealings for tax purposes, and so on. For administrative and reporting purposes, the differences among these types of communities are less significant than their similarities. As a result, top self-managed HOA software can be just as significant and useful for condo associations and co-ops as it is for HOAs.
The bottom line
When you involve yourself in homeowners association affairs—whether you decide to vie for a board member seat or work as an administrator—your community’s bottom line is an essential part of the focus of your work. The combination of community association software and QuickBooks works to help you keep that bottom line healthy.
You’ll always want to confer with your accountant or bookkeeper to determine exactly how to document and manage your community’s financial affairs in your self-managed HOA software as well as in QuickBooks. If you follow their recommendations and maintain a consistent schedule of updates from your HOA management software to QuickBooks, you’ll have all the well-organized financial data you need for proper fiscal reporting.