You finally did it: You made it past the gauntlet of stress and fear to become a first-time homeowner. Now your first holiday season in the brand-new house is approaching, and you’re excited to splurge on decorations. You buy all the lights and inflatable lawn fixtures, then spend hours putting up an intricate display that’s sure to wow the neighbors.
But the next morning, you wake up to a notice in the mail saying you’ve violated your homeowners association’s rules. Now you have to take everything down or suffer the consequences. Can your homeowners association (HOA) really fine you over this?
The brutal answer is “Yes.” With more than 53% of all homeowners participating in an HOA, it’s apparent why buyers need to understand everything an HOA entails.
Lisa Gasper, a top-selling agent in Williamsburg, Virginia, who sells homes 41% quicker than the average area agent, confirms that statistic. “Between 75% to 80% of the homes I sell are in an HOA,” she said.
These associations help coordinate the upkeep of the community’s property, charging fees and conducting assessments of necessary repairs.
Not all homeowners associations are the same, though. You’ll find some that are well-run by a competent and cordial board. Others may be ridden with infighting and nosy busybodies.
Neighborhoods with HOAs can be alluring, but sometimes homeowners don’t consider all the repercussions of living in one. If you don’t read all the CC&Rs (covenants, rules, and restrictions), you run the risk of running afoul of them.
If you find yourself notified you’ve broken a rule, you’re probably wondering what an HOA can legally do to you. Can an HOA fine you — or worse?
We’ve done the research for you and talked with industry professionals to answer all the questions on how HOAs work, what they can and can’t do, and more.
CC&Rs: You bought in when you bought
Once you buy a house that’s in an HOA, you’re bound by its CC&Rs.
An HOA’s CC&Rs contain the community’s rules and regulations that apply to your home and the greater community. Before a homeowner can sell a house in an HOA, the seller must disclose HOA documents.
Make sure you understand the various pros and cons of an HOA before you sign away your freedom to decorate as you please.
“I have sometimes advised a client against a certain house because I knew it was within an HOA, and it didn’t align with the buyer’s personality,” says Gasper. She has more than five years of experience helping guide buyers and sellers through the market and work with HOAs.
While Gasper noted that “many people don’t want a home in an HOA,” there are several benefits to living in one.
“One of the primary benefits is that property values are higher.”
For Gasper, an HOA is worth it. Her own home is in a voluntary HOA. “I enjoy the landscaping, clubhouse, and pool provided by my HOA.”
For many people, the biggest drawback to an HOA are the monthly payments to live there.
“A portion of the monthly fees you pay often goes toward the maintenance of the entrance to the community. Many HOAs prefer a sign with their name lit by lights at the entrance,” says Alex Gottlob, owner of Gottlob Lawn & Landscaping, servicing the Winfield, Kansas, area for the past 20 years.
The landscaping service is responsible for trimming shrubbery, pulling weeds, pruning trees, and maintaining rock or water features.
Commonly violated rules of the HOA road
HOAs are meticulous when it comes to maintaining the aesthetic of a community. All HOAs have rules that govern when a lawn is too overgrown. There are also rules about how many trees and other plants you can have on your lawn, and where they may be placed.
It’s common for an HOA to have rules on where you can park your vehicle and how many are allowed in the driveway. Many prefer for all vehicles to be parked inside the garage so they’re out-of-sight. If you ever plan to have a gathering, you’ll often need to write in a request to the board to have guest parking approved.
Renting out a bedroom or fully refurbished basement is a great way to pull in a little side income. However, homeowners insurance in an HOA community is often based on the ratio of owners to renters living there. If you ever want to rent your home, you may need written permission from the HOA.
Because HOAs are sticklers for the general look of the entire community, there are often several rules revolving around handling trash. Boxes must be broken down, and discarded furniture can’t be tossed into the community dumpster. There are also typically rules for when you can place your garbage cans at the curb, and also for when you must bring them in (Hint: it’s usually by the evening of the same day).
Even storing things like your bicycle are often covered by the HOA’s CC&Rs. You’ll be expected to keep all items stored either inside the garage or hidden from view in a fenced-in backyard. Also, adding a storage structure (such as a small shed) is often against the rules of an HOA.
HOAs may even have restrictions on breeds and sizes of pets allowed, as well as the number of pets. It’s also common to find rules outlining where dogs can be walked, as well as the fines for unleashed dogs or failing to clean up while on the walk.
Decorations are another huge aspect that HOAs control. It’s common for the entire community to be expected to decorate for holidays like Christmas. However, even the style of decoration is often controlled. Many HOA rules control the size and type of decoration allowed, and also establish deadlines for taking down the decorations after the holiday. If you’re slow to pull lights down after Christmas, an HOA community might be challenging for you.
All homes within an HOA community must maintain a certain standard of aesthetic appeal. If you want to paint your home a new color, you’ll probably need to seek written approval from the HOA’s board. Even smaller design alterations, like replacing your mailbox, will usually require approval first.
Ask for a copy of the HOA’s CC&Rs before you put an offer on a house
So you’ve fallen in love with a house in an HOA community, and you’re ready to put in an offer. Before you do, request a copy of the CC&Rs. You don’t want to risk breaking a rule for your first week living there.
Remember: It’s your responsibility to read through all of the CC&Rs. You’re expected to know all of the rules and follow them starting on day one in your new abode.
What happens if I break a rule?
If you fail to follow the outlined rules, your HOA has a number of legal recourse options. If you’ve broken a rule, the first thing you’ll want to do is refer to the CC&Rs to get an idea of the possible repercussions.
Never ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Ignoring it could make the situation worse. Take immediate action to understand and fix the violation.
Some states give HOAs more power than others
While it’s outside the power of an HOA to force an owner to sell their home, there are other actions they can take that are quite serious. For example, if a homeowner falls too far behind on their monthly HOA payments, an HOA can put a lien on the home and eventually foreclose on it.
Some HOAs send a warning letter first…
If you’re lucky, your HOA will send you a letter to notify you of the violation. In these warning letters, you’ll be informed which rule you’re breaking and how. The letter will also give you a deadline to remedy the problem and should detail the possible ramifications if you fail to fix the violation within the given timeline.
Some HOAs will arrange a hearing for you to appear in person and discuss the transgression. In San Francisco, you have the right to a 10-day notice that gives the date and time of the hearing and explains the violation. This hearing gives you a chance to argue your side and possibly avoid a fine.
…Others jump straight to fines
Not all HOAs are required to mail out a warning letter. Some HOAs will instead mail a letter informing you of any fines.
These fines can add up at breakneck speed, too. In some cases, if you fail to fix the violation immediately, you’ll incur additional fines each day until the problem is resolved. You’ll find that many HOA fines are set at around $25 and then increase to $50 or more for each additional day the violation continues.
Police might enforce HOA rules
It’s well within the scope of both the HOA and police to enforce certain CC&Rs. However, any HOA rules enforced usually overlap with other state and local regulations.
If you’re holding a party and loud music isn’t allowed within the HOA, and it also happens to exceed the city’s noise ordinances, then police will enforce the rule. Police may also enforce speed limits and pet leash laws.
While there may be an HOA rule about where you can plant your shrub in the front yard, police will not enforce these types of violations. The police will also not enforce HOA rules on landscaping, storage, or home appearance.
That said, be aware that it may be within the HOA’s right to walk onto your property without notifying you beforehand. HOA board members can come on your property to assess the violation. For example, if there’s a rule against metal fences and you recently put a fence up, the HOA can come onto your property to double-check whether it’s metal.
Some HOAs can also take action on your property to remedy a violation. If the fence is metal and that’s against the rules, then the HOA might be able to remove your fence without notifying you beforehand.
You could be suspended from using some of the common areas and amenities while you’re breaking the rules
Along with a fine, you might also be suspended from using common facilities, such as a pool or fitness room. These privileges aren’t restored until you both fix the violation and pay off all outstanding fines.
Many HOAs have arbitration or mediation clauses baked into the CC&Rs to avoid court
Most HOAs prefer to resolve problems with homeowners amicably. If possible, many HOAs will ask a homeowner to attend an arbitration so that both sides can discuss the violation and what to do next.
Retired judges with experience in HOA laws most often make up HOA arbitrators. At the meeting, the arbitrator listens to both sides and looks over all the presented evidence.
They then make a decision, which can take a few hours or several days. The decision is legally binding and cannot be overturned in a court of law.
Sometimes court is unavoidable
However, if mediation or arbitration is unsuccessful, your HOA can (and likely will) sue you. Once things progress to a lawsuit, it’s also highly likely you’ll be held responsible for the attorney fees. And HOAs can charge you for other costs incurred during the enforcement of the broken rule.
If the situation worsens and fines remain outstanding, the HOA could take even more drastic steps.
The HOA can’t kick you out of your home
While an HOA can’t outright kick you out of your home, it can take action against you in other ways.
If you’ve accrued a large past due balance for HOA fees, some states allow an HOA to place a lien against your home. If you remain unable to make payments, the HOA can use the unpaid lien to then foreclose on your home.
Not all states give HOAs the power to place a lien for past due fines. In some states, liens aren’t allowed at all, while others require an outstanding amount of past due balances before the option of a lien is allowed.
Almost all states require the HOA to provide notification to the homeowner of the violation and that it intends to file a lien.
My HOA is fining me: What should I do?
The first step you should take is to correct the violation at once. If you ignore the problem and leave a violation in place, you may end up hurting yourself in the long run.
Many CC&Rs include a stipulation that additional fines will continue to accrue for each day the rule remains broken. Instead of dealing with a $25 fee, you could end up with hundreds of dollars in penalties.
When problems with your HOA arise, paperwork can be a lifesaver. Be sure to document what you’ve done to correct the violation. Write a letter that details, in-depth, what steps you took to resolve the problem. Include pictures with the letter if you can. You want to express yourself clearly to the HOA.
If you disagree with your HOA’s CC&Rs, consider trying to join the HOA board. By volunteering for a board position, you can work to improve your community and have a say in the shaping of rules. The success of a community is often reliant on homeowner involvement.
If you feel your HOA isn’t following the appropriate procedures as outlined in their CC&Rs, or are uncertain what your rights are, contact an attorney. Not just any attorney will do, either. Look for one who has experience in dealing with HOA laws.
Dealing with HOA-governed communities has its pros and cons. Whether you decide you want a home in an HOA or not, be sure to communicate those desires to your real estate agent while you’re shopping around. Our top agents will know the best areas to search for your dream home.
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