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What an HOA Can—and Can’t—Make Rules About

USA Real Estate 1522

By Kristine Gill,

In your search for a home, you might have considered whether you want to live in a community with a homeowners association (HOA). Making that decision comes down to fully understanding what an HOA is, what it does, and what kinds of rules an HOA can make and enforce. 

“HOAs serve an excellent purpose in helping all homeowners have a fair understanding of what they need to do to protect property values for the good of all members,” says Murray Davis, a realtor with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes. “They will vary to some extent by HOA or subdivision, but they are typically very reasonable and fair.”

What Is an HOA?

It’s important to understand an HOA’s organizational structure and purpose to know its authority.

Structure of an HOA

Chris Gooch, an attorney with Fennemore Law, explains that HOAs are legal entities, usually created by the developer of a subdivision to “monitor and enforce certain covenants, conditions, and restrictions [CC&Rs] that apply to real property.”

“HOAs must adhere to all federal, state, and local laws, and cannot create rules that contradict them,” says Mark Buskuhl, founder and CEO at Ninebird Properties. “For example, an HOA cannot prohibit a resident from installing solar panels on their property if it is allowed by state law. Additionally, there may be legal limitations to the scope of rules an HOA can enforce, such as regulating indoor noise levels or restricting political speech on private property.” 

HOAs are specific to each neighborhood or subdivision they oversee, and the rules only apply to those living in the community. They also don’t rise to the level of laws or local government ordinances. Still, living in an HOA community typically means joining the HOA is mandatory. 

Purpose of an HOA

The purpose of an HOA is to create a set of CC&Rs that enhance the quality of life of its residents. Some HOAs also work to improve this standard of living by offering shared amenities that those living outside the community might not otherwise be able to enjoy. 

“Some common rules on maintenance and appearance include approved roofing and exterior siding colors/materials, fencing guidelines, landscaping guidelines, not parking vehicles on the street overnight or in yards, and limiting how long recreational vehicles may occupy a driveway,” Davis says. 

HOAs are run by a board with members who live in the community. They are typically chosen through a type of election process. Each HOA member pays fees to live in the community. In exchange, those fees are used to improve and maintain the community.

How an HOA Rule Is Created

Establishing a CC&R in an HOA community follows a specific order like many other governing bodies. 

“Homeowners association rules are established by the HOA board. When written correctly, they are drafted and revised over time, reviewed internally among the board members, circulated to the entire HOA membership for input, and then ultimately voted upon by the HOA board as required in the HOA’s bylaws,” says Christa Kenin, a real estate agent at Douglas Elliman. 

These rules usually pass with a majority or two-thirds vote, which Kenin says is standard.  

There are multiple opportunities for members of an HOA community to learn about the rules and voice opinions about them. In addition to creating new rules, the board is likely to tweak existing ones. Kenin says these rules are typically revised either because they’re considered antiquated or because members of an HOA have raised issues that need to be addressed through a change. 

To do so, the HOA follows the process outlined for rule creation and revision outlined in its community bylaws, Kenin says. 

“There are no federal, state, or local legal standards that govern this process,” she says. “However, HOA rules must be consistent with and cannot run contrary to existing federal, state, or local laws.”

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Types of Rules HOAs Enforce

HOAs aim to improve the quality of life for residents, meaning many HOA rules have to do with the way each member maintains their property, which potentially affects those living around them. “Examples run the gamut from aesthetic issues to big deal construction issues,” Kenin says. 

Aesthetics: That might mean rules for the color you can paint your house, taking your trash out regularly, watering your lawn on specified days, hanging laundry outside, setting off fireworks, and performing approved construction work during certain days and times. 

Renovations: “Most co-op/condo structures require permits to do substantial work—meaning anything attached to a wall,” Kenin says. “Think kitchen renovations, reflooring tiles, electrical and plumbing work requiring experience and lots of insurance.”

Noise: HOAs are particularly concerned with how your lifestyle might affect other residents, which means there are guidelines around noise. “HOAs typically have noise guidelines and usually have an a.m. and p.m. deadline for anything from loud music to construction workers,” Davis says.

Pets: “Pet ownership can be impacted by the city that an HOA resides in and can include limits on the number of pets, breed, and variety. Some cities allow chickens, some don’t,” adds Davis.

Shared Amenity Use: HOAs also set rules for how the shared amenities and communal areas are treated, such as where and when residents can park in certain areas, when a pool operates, and who can use it.

“Most HOAs ask that cars not be parked on the street overnight and that garage doors remain closed day or night unless the homeowner is actively moving lawn equipment or cars in or at any given time,” Davis says. “This is for the safety of residents to avoid break-ins and adds to the positive appearance when people are driving through an area.” 

HOAs must operate within the framework of local or state laws. First and foremost, they cannot discriminate and must adhere to fair housing guidelines.


Resident Participation in HOA Decision-Making

Members of HOA communities have full rights to participate in the decision-making that goes on within their communities. They also have the right to attend meetings where decisions are made and to elect the officials making those decisions on their behalf. 

HOA Penalties

If you fail to follow a rule outlined by your HOA, you could face penalties. Sometimes these repercussions are spelled out in the CC&Rs, and other times they are handled on a case-by-case basis. 

“Typically, monetary penalties are handed out, so an infringing HOA member would be charged X dollars per day while in non-compliance,” Kenin says. “Harsher penalties could include restricted access to HOA amenities such as a golf course or swimming pool or parking area. Co-op/condo construction penalties could also include requiring an apartment owner to undo all the work completed without a permit. That adds up pretty quickly.” 

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Responses to HOA Penalties

A resident who is currently facing fines has some recourse. “A disgruntled HOA member may try to appeal to the HOA board,” Kenin says. “HOAs and their boards are private organizations, so as long as the organization is not violating federal, state, or local laws, they have lots of leeway—just like private country clubs do. Disgruntled HOA members rarely get very far with their boards.”

Residents who believe their HOA is breaking a law can also seek help outside the HOA board. “Homeowners who believe an HOA rule is unfair or unjustified may have the option to challenge or dispute it,” says Buskuhl.

Buskuhl says the process typically involves submitting a written request to the HOA board, which reviews it and decides whether to change or uphold the rule in question. 

“If a homeowner is dissatisfied with the outcome, they may take further action, such as appealing to an external governing body or seeking legal counsel,” he adds. 

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