As much as we might not like to admit it at times, homeowners associations have rules and regulations in place for a reason. Mostly, they are for community safety and structure. If you find yourself questioning whether your HOA has the authority to regulate a certain item or action, check its governing documents and bylaws, as well as your state and local laws. If you’re a board member, you need to realize the importance of clear, coherent rules and governing documents, in order to avoid misunderstandings and disputes.

CC&Rs

To get this guide started, it’s important to understand what is in place that gives the HOA the power to act in the first place; this begins and ends with the CC&Rs. The Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs) dictate the rules or restrictions the owners of the land must follow in all homeowners associations (HOA), property owners associations, and community associations. The CC&Rs are said to “run with the land,” meaning that the restrictions for the property are in place no matter who owns the property.

The DCCR’s include specific guidelines for such items as yard maintenance, basketball hoops, noise, pets, parking, vehicle storage, and general nuisances.

The CC&Rs also list in detail the association’s covenant for assessments. This covenant gives the association the right to charge dues to each of its members, and lists the consequences for non-payment. Oftentimes, the HOA can enforce these rules through their HOA management company. The guidelines for establishing and executing the architectural control committee are also included in the CC&Rs. All of these items are vital to an association and ensure that the association is always maintained and well kept by your HOA management company or Board of Directors.

When a homeowner purchases a home in a community with a mandatory homeowners association, they must sign documents that state that they have been told that the property they are purchasing has rules and restrictions. It’s important to read through the CC&Rs and be aware of all of the rules of the neighborhood before purchasing a house in a mandatory HOA.

The ARC

Now, while the CC&Rs provide the outline for how the community is run, it is The Architectural Review Changes committee that is responsible for ensuring that any changes to the exterior of the homes conform to the standards set by the governing documents, such as the CC&Rs and bylaws, making them one of the most important committees established in any HOA. They also ensure that no exterior modifications will be approved that will negatively impact the appearance of the community. In other words, if a community member wishes to, say, paint their house, and your CC&Rs have a provision giving the board and ARC control over such an action, it is the ARC who will approve or deny said structural improvement. Your HOA management company’s responsibilities include assisting your community with ARCs.

As board members and even HOA management companies change over the years, it’s vital to have the ability to review alterations, as well as have a modicum of control over these improvements so the community can continue to aspire to the image its residents desire. If alterations to a home occur without HOA approval, the board needs to take appropriate action to follow up, and a hearing should possibly be conducted. These kinds of regulatory procedures not only help to preserve order in the community, but allow the freedom for reasonable modifications to the homes.

The Powers of the Board and ARC

As you can see, the powers of these two governing bodies are far reaching and quite substantial; but, just how far do they go? Fortunately for board members—and unfortunately for homeowners, in some cases—these powers go as far as the CC&Rs allow; in other words, they are almost limitless when it comes to the appearance of the neighborhood.

Many of the rules that you’ll see outlined in the CC&Rs that the Board of Directors has the power to enforce have to do with lawn maintenance. The CC&Rs list general rules for the maintenance of community members’ lawns, including mowing, edging, weed removal, watering, removal of dead trees and plants, and replacing dead grass. Additionally, if you live in a gated community, your association owns the streets, and specific rules regarding parking must be in place for proper enforcement (this is why many HOAs are able to dictate where you can and cannot park).

Specific guidelines about what types of vehicles can be stored on the property are also often addressed in the CC&Rs. Boats, trailers, broken down vehicles, tractors or other recreational vehicles that are parked in the driveway are unsightly and can ruin property values over time.

Other rules may have to do with the care, noise level, and overall maintenance of pets. The CC&Rs normally list which types of domestic animals and how many (generally two dogs and two cats) can be kept on a lot. Also, most CC&Rs mention that animals must be confined to the owner’s lot or on a leash at all times. And these are just some of the rules you may encounter. When it comes to changing the exterior of their home, there can be even more.

In fact, one of the most common complaints we hear from HOA management homeowners concerns the difficulty of being able to paint their house in the color and fashion they want.

People who hate the very existence of any HOA will say that it’s insane that you have to get approval in order to paint the outside of the property that YOU own. And, while that’s a popular complaint against the idea of a homeowners association, it’s also one of the most common issues that homeowners associations have to deal with.

For example, when you come home from work one day and your neighbor has decided to change their home from a sandy color to a bright green, you might have a negative reaction. It could dramatically affect you and your community’s property values. Now, all of a sudden, this has become a major issue for you and your other neighbors. At this point, you will be glad that you live in a homeowners association that can take action and protect your investment from the person next door.

So, what if you want to change the color of your home, not to some radical color, but just a slight adjustment? Well, the best place to start is by calling your HOA management company. Get in contact with your community manager and ask them what steps you need to take in order to get your paint proposal approved.

Common Areas

The common areas of a community association also fall under the jurisdiction of the HOA. These areas are of the utmost importance for any HOA, as they are where your association members will spend time in and share together. That’s why it’s necessary that you keep your common areas maintained, and encourage members to do the same. You may come across members who have no courtesy for the community common areas. In such cases, it’s wise to have specific rules in place for members who use the common areas.

Bothersome members in your community association (such as those who are overly noisy or leave their personal belongings in common areas) are detrimental to the harmony of your HOA.  Community members must be reminded that these common areas belong to the community as a whole, and that they need to be responsible for their actions.

Your association members may be confused as to what exactly is considered a common area. In order to ensure that everyone is on the same page, define for your members what a common area is. Common areas consist of stairwells, hallways, laundry rooms, lobbies, basement and roof areas, courtyards, pathways, lawns, and any areas with community amenities, such as fitness centers, pools, and sport courts.

Once you’ve made certain that there isn’t any ambiguity over which areas constitute common areas, ban your members from leaving trash and/or laundry in those areas. Members may leave their trash out in the hallways to take to designated community trash bin at a later time, but this action is not being courteous of other members within the community. It’s important for members to know that repeated instances of this behavior will not be tolerated.

Association members should never leave any of their personal belongings in common areas, but if they do, your HOA must reserve the right to remove those items yourself. Whether it’s a bike attached to a railing or a bushel of children’s toys scattered across a lawn, having these items in the common areas is not only an eyesore, but hazardous to other members of the community.

Common area rules need to ban members from causing a nuisance in your community common areas. Nuisances include loud noises, inappropriate clothing, anti-social behavior, running, riding skateboards or bikes in the street, and playing music without wearing headphones.

Make sure you let your members know that they are also responsible for the actions of their tenants and guests. If a tenant or guest of a member violates the common area rules, the member will be held accountable for those actions.

Managing the Playground

Playgrounds, like common areas, are yet another part of the community which the Board has power over, or should have if it does not. After all, a playground can be a hazard, especially if children are unsupervised or if the equipment isn’t properly used or maintained. If injuries occur, the association could end up getting sued.

Although your association is responsible for the basic upkeep of playground equipment, HOAs aren’t generally responsible for supervising children at the playground. Through the playground rules, make parents aware that they should be supervising their children at all times. Inform members that they must ensure that their children use the playground equipment as intended to reduce the risk of injury. On that note, be sure to ban children from rough play, shoving, and fighting on the playground, as well as throwing rocks, sand or other objects.

It’s also a good idea to set reasonable hours for playground use, such as 8:00am until dusk or other times that correspond with daylight. Most community managers will suggest closing the playground area during stormy weather; playground equipment can be slippery when wet, causing accidents as a result.

If your community’s playground has an asphalt or blacktop surface, don’t let children roller-skate, in-line skate, skateboard or ride bicycles in the playground. These items could cause injury that the association may be liable for. Pets should also be banned from playground areas, as they can pose a danger to children and also use the sandbox as a bathroom.

Although your association is not required to supervise children at the common area playgrounds, your HOA is responsible for making sure that the equipment is safe and follows the consumer product safety guides. Some HOA management companies will send community managers to the playground at least once a month to review the equipment and call in a vendor to perform an inspection and make repairs as necessary.

Can Your HOA Access Your Property?

With all these rules, the board of directors may be starting to seem like a little too powerful, even for board members who are just out to keep their community in line. So, just how far is an association permitted to go in the name of regulation? Many people view their HOA as desirable organizations that prevent property values from dipping too low. However, others are uncomfortable with the idea of their HOA overstepping its bounds and invading their personal privacy, particularly by entering their property.

If you’re wondering whether your HOA has access to a homeowner’s property, the first action you should take is to check the homeowners association’s agreement or bylaws. Within those legal documents, the homeowner should be able to determine what rights are granted to the association explicitly. It’s not unheard of for an association to change rules without any warning or notification to members. In other words, what may have been passable before may become a citation-worthy offense, without the homeowner knowing until it’s too late.

Additionally, just because a term is not stated in black in white doesn’t mean the homeowners association doesn’t have the right. The property owner should carefully read the agreement before ever signing, to determine if the document gives the association any implied rights.

For example, the bylaws may state that the property owner’s presence within the neighborhood gives implicit consent for the homeowners association to come onto the property, whether the owner is home or not, for the purpose of inspection or complaint investigation. In the event the association initiates communication regarding an inspection and the homeowner denies access, the implicit consent clause lets the association onto the property whether the homeowner consents or not. That being said, they cannot force themselves through the front door against the owner’s will; they would only be able to inspect the exterior of the property. However, if the homeowners association has a copy of the key to the home, they can enter the home as they see fit.

Another example in which your HOA may enter the homeowner’s property is if a tenet of the association agreement has been violated. Perhaps the owner has broken a rule regarding outside decor or lawn ornamentation. If the owner fails to respond to citations by the association, he or she may be subject to fines or an unwanted visit from the homeowners association. While the association cannot harass the property owner, they can enforce the rules of the association code.

Unenforceable Rules

Running a community association takes a lot of work, so sometimes HOA management companies may overlook changes in state, federal, or local laws. When changes in laws regarding homeowners associations occur, it’s important to reflect these changes in your rules.

If your current rules contradict current laws, those rules become unenforceable, and even worse, you could be breaking the law. HOA management companies must look through the governing documents to make sure certain rules aren’t included to avoid problems. There are three rules often seen in community association governing documents that violate laws; it’s your responsibility to read through your documents to make sure these rules aren’t included.

The first rule for HOA management companies to look for in the governing documents is any rule barring children under a certain age from using the community pool. Obviously, children are more likely to be involved in pool accidents that could be a liability for the association, which makes it tempting to ban them from the pool area completely. Do not ban children from your community pool. Banning children from the community pool violates the federal Fair Housing Law, and you could be responsible if a lawsuit were to occur.

The second rule to keep out of the governing documents is any rule that bans the use of satellite dishes. This is America, and we love our televisions. By federal law, you cannot ban a member from installing and using a satellite dish. However, you can enforce a rule stating the dish cannot be more than one meter in diameter.

The third rule, being a state law, is for the use of solar panels. An association cannot ban the installation and use of solar energy panels. Even if you find them unsightly, they are here to stay. It’s also against the law to make rules in order to make the process of installing solar panels too difficult or expensive for members.

Know the Rules, Improve your Community

When all community and board members understand the governing documents, rules, and restrictions of your HOA, it’s much easier for everyone to follow those regulations. Just make sure that your HOA’s rules do not overstep any boundaries outside of their control, and you should find fewer complaints over the rules.