IRVING, Texas - Thousands of Americans who have generally kept up with their mortgages are still in danger of losing their homes because they made a fateful trade-off in this shaky economy - they let their homeowner association dues slide.

Many homeowners are learning to their surprise that condo and neighborhood associations that oversee security patrols, mow lawns, plant flowers and clean the community swimming pool may have the right to foreclose when dues aren't paid. That right is often written into the purchase agreement signed by the homeowner.

Among those who have been threatened with foreclosure is Lacey Pilat, who lost her job catering lavish corporate parties and nearly lost her two-story house in this Dallas suburb.

"Basically, our landscaper was foreclosing on the house," said Steve Pilat, her husband. "That's the way we looked at it."

These foreclosure actions do not necessarily pit neighbor against neighbor. Many homeowner associations have turned the job of collecting member dues over to outside management companies. And to them, it's strictly business, not personal.

Homeowner association boards and their management companies defend the practice, saying that maintaining the neighborhood preserves everyone's property values.

Gauging the number of foreclosures nationwide by homeowner association is difficult. But in Texas, foreclosure attempts initiated by homeowner associations in 19 counties are up 30 percent from two years ago, according to Dallas-based Foreclosure Listing Services.

In the San Antonio area alone, foreclosure actions by homeowner associations jumped to 170 in April from 21 in April 2008, according to RexReport.com.

In Florida, attorney Bob Tankel, who represents hundreds of homeowner and condo associations, said that he has increased his staff from three to 16 in the past 18 months to handle a mounting caseload of 3,500 open collections. About one-fifth of those cases have reached foreclosure, he said. *