When you’re on the hunt for a new place, you’ll notice that some homes are in a community with a homeowners association, or HOA. Some folks think of HOAs as over-reaching neighborhood patrols, while others believe the rules protect and enhance property values.
“All of these communities — more than 350,000 nationally — share a few essential goals, says Dawn Bauman, senior vice president, government and public affairs for the Community Associations Institute (CAI). “(This includes) preserving the nature and character of the community, providing services and amenities to residents and protecting property values.
All HOAs come with rules, though, and failure to follow them can result in unpleasant consequences. Just ask Atlanta homeowner Parker Singletary. Before Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl in February 2019, one of his neighbors mentioned that residents were allowed to rent their homes just for that weekend.
Singletary cleaned his house, took photos and posted them on a popular property rental site. “Nobody ended up taking my house for the weekend, so I thought I was done with the situation,” he says. Instead, he received a cease and desist letter from a local law firm for breaking the HOA rules, along with a $1,000 fine.
If you’re one of the more than 73 million Americans who reside in one of these communities, it’s important to make sure you’re following all of your homeowners association rules. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about HOA rules and how to avoid potential trouble.
What is an HOA?
A HOA is a group of community property owners who volunteer to create covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and who manage the community’s property and common areas. Typically, these groups of volunteer neighbors contract a professional management company to help enforce the community bylaws.
“Community associations are legal entities in which the owners enjoy the protection, enhancement, maintenance and preservation of their homes and property,” Bauman explains. “Membership in the community association is mandatory and automatic for all owners.”
By being a part of a HOA and following HOA rules, residents may get benefits like groundskeeping, exterior maintenance, trash pick up and code enforcement. When new homeowners buy a home in the HOA-governed community, they commit to following the rules.
What happens if you ignore HOA rules?
As Singletary discovered, whether you knowingly break the homeowners association rules or overstep them by mistake, the consequences can be costly. If a bylaw is broken, it’s the association’s responsibility to notify the offending resident to allow them to comply and/or to assign a fine.
In Singletary’s case, he didn’t receive a warning. Instead, he received a $1,000 fine, which he appealed. The fine was later reduced to $300 to cover legal fees. “I begrudgingly paid the $300 to avoid a lien from the HOA, but I will be at the (next) appeal meeting to try and get it back,” he says.
Can the police enforce HOA rules?
The short answer is yes, police can enforce some HOA rules. Case in point, homeowners association rules and covenants have to comply with state and local laws and ordinances, which are enforceable by local law enforcement.
“When residents purchase a home in homeowner and condominium associations, they contractually agree to become part of an association with their fellow owners, all of whom are bound by the association’s governing documents,” Bauman says.
For instance, police could enforce speed limits, noise ordinances and pet leash laws because they are legal matters, but they wouldn’t enforce other HOA rules on landscaping or paint violations.
Can the HOA force a homeowner to sell a home for not following the HOA rules?
A homeowners association can’t force an owner to sell a home for not following the HOA rules. However, community associations can enforce the rules and initiate reasonable fines for violations. If a homeowner doesn’t pay fines, late fees can pile up and an HOA can put a lien against the home (even if it has a mortgage) and foreclose on the lien, too.
To avoid racking up fines, here are some of the most common HOA rules violations you should know about.
- Landscaping: HOAs are responsible for how a community looks, so expect them to have rules about overgrown lawns, weeds and unkempt exteriors. Be sure to check your bylaws about what types of trees/plants/shrubs are allowed.
- Vehicles: HOA often limit how many and what type of motor vehicles (RVs, boats and commercial vehicles, for example) can be kept on a property, as well as speed limits and rules about parking only in designated areas.
- Rentals: Some HOAs have rules about subletting homes, both because of security and because most communities’ insurance is dependent on the percentage of owners versus renters. Most HOAs require written permission to rent a home, which may require a homeowner to join a waitlist.
- Trash: Homeowners can get into trouble for throwing certain items—like boxes that haven’t been broken down or pieces of furniture—into community dumpsters. It might also be against the rules to put trash cans out too early or not bring them in by a certain time, since they can attract pests and make a neighborhood look shabby.
- Exterior storage: HOAs sometimes limit what types of equipment may be stored outside. For instance, you might have to keep bicycles or kayaks out of view, behind a fence. Your HOA might also have rules limiting or preventing the addition of storage structures that aren’t attached to the home.
- Pets: To keep their residents safe and comfortable, HOAs often have restrictions about where pets can and can’t walk, keeping dogs on leashes and picking up after your pet. You might also be limited to how many pets you can own, specific breeds and sizes.
- Noise: Most HOAs have rules that restrict loud noises between certain hours. Most cities and counties also have noise ordinances that must be followed, even if the HOA doesn’t have restrictions.
- Holiday decorations: If you’re the neighbor who keeps Christmas lights up until Valentine’s Day, living in an HOA community might not be ideal. Some HOA rules include rules how long before and after a holiday that you can decorate the home’s exterior. And some HOAs even regulate the size and type of decor allowed.
- Design changes: Homeowners associations often have strict rules about changing the appearance or structure of your home. Simple things like painting your house, adding a patio or deck, or even changing your mailbox usually require written approval from an HOA’s design review committee.
How to respond to HOA rules violations
- Address it: Ignoring a violation won’t make it go away, and can make the situation much worse. Once you’ve received a violation notice, take steps to understand and correct the violation, and either pay or appeal the fine.
- Don’t take it personally: Remember that the rules were created to keep the community safe and comfortable for residents, including you. You agreed to abide by the rules when you bought your home.
- Communicate: While friendly face-to-face communication can address minor infractions or warnings, written communication and documentation helps create clarity for everyone involved. When you’ve been accused of an HOA rules violation, it’s best to address it in writing. If there are extenuating circumstances—like a family emergency that causes you to fall behind on lawn care—communicate that to your HOA manager. You don’t know if an exception might be made until you ask.
- Get involved: “There is usually a correlation between the level of homeowner involvement and the long-term success of a community,” Bauman says. So, if you want to improve your community, volunteer for a board position or attend meetings to see how you can contribute.
Living in an HOA community isn’t for everyone. If you want the freedom to update your home as you see fit, ask your real estate agent to help you find homes that don’t belong to restrictive HOAs.
When in doubt, do your homework and read the rules before making an offer on a home that belongs to an HOA.
“Homeowners have the right to receive all documents that address rules and regulations governing the community association,” Bauman says. “Since association rules vary from community to community, common HOA violations also differ.”