real estate

Pros and cons of homeowners associations

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Highlights
  • Homeowners association rules usually work reasonably well.
  • Rules annoy owners who want to decorate as they please, or have big pets.
  • Don't like the rules? There's nothing that forces you to buy there.

When you live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners or condominium association, you might not have the final say over the color of your house, the size of your pet or how you decorate for the holidays. If you don't like the association's rules, there's little you can do short of suing or moving out.

"Most associations work reasonably well most of the time, but there are tons of examples of really troubling rules," says Evan McKenzie, associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the book "Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government."

Among other actions that have aroused controversy, associations have banned owners from renting out residences and have forbidden inflatable lawn ornaments at Christmastime.

HOAs and condo associations are bound by state laws. Florida, Nevada and Virginia have ombudsmen to hear complaints. In the rest of the states, the state government plays a minimal role, McKenzie says.

Restrictions on house colors, pet weights and landscaping choices are found in the association's covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CCRs. The CCRs are filed with the county clerk and are public record.

HOAs usually mean well

Most association rules are well-intended, says David Lupberger, home improvement expert at ServiceMagic, an online service that connects homeowners with service professionals. You don't want neighbors parking an RV in the driveway or painting their home bright purple, he says.

But not everyone finds the rules reasonable, and disputes have arisen over CCRs that ban exterior Christmas lights or allow only white lights. Some associations enforce pet-weight restrictions so zealously that they put dogs on the scale.

Another contentious issue is association amendments that ban home and condo owners from renting out their dwellings. For strapped owners, leasing to tenants could mean the difference between foreclosure and keeping the property, McKenzie says.

In California, associations can restrict rentals only if they had such rules in place before the beginning of this year, says David Feingold, a partner at Ragghianti Freitas LLP, a law firm in San Rafael, Calif.

Repercussions abound from ignoring the rules

Frustrated? Painting the house bright pink isn't an option, unless you want to face fines and a potential lawsuit. The best defense against onerous restrictions is to read the CCRs before buying the dwelling, says Donna DiMaggio Berger, partner at Katzman Garfinkel & Berger, a law firm in Margate, Fla. Then decide if you can live comfortably within the rules.

"If you are looking to buy and there is a dumb restriction, don't buy there," Berger says. "You can't move into a community with the restriction and think it won't apply to you."

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