Owning a home gives you more freedom — freedom to paint your dining room bright pink, install a trampoline in the backyard, or finally get a dog. But if that desire for freedom is part of what’s driving your home search, you might want to avoid buying in an area with a homeowners association (or HOA). Do you know what kind of HOA rules you’re in for?
An HOA sets the rules for the people who live in its community or condominium building. They also enforce the rules, and they can fine you if you break them.
“I think that buyers and owners in subdivisions with HOAs benefit because their properties are maintained,” she explains.
“They’re assured when they move into a new community that has an HOA that the other people all have to comply with the same standards.”
If your dream home comes with an HOA, it might not prevent you from enjoying the lifestyle you want. But before making an offer, you should know what you’re getting into.
If you’re considering buying a home in a neighborhood with an HOA, here are the most common HOA rules you might have to follow.
Behavior rules in common areas
When you share an apartment with a roommate, you hope that they behave considerately. Ideally, they’ll keep the noise down if they come home late, or wipe down the kitchen counters after cooking. Most HOA rules apply the same principles to the common areas.
Common areas, or shared spaces, in a neighborhood or condo could include pools, gyms, a club room, or recreational facilities. These areas are open to everyone who belongs to the HOA and their guests.
Behavior rules address issues of politeness and respect — some common HOA examples might include no swearing, no loud parties, and no profane music — to keep the spaces welcoming for everybody.
Rules usually dictate when you can use the common area — no 2 a.m pool parties — how many guests you can have with you, or who can use the common areas.
Hartmann thinks these rules ensure that everyone using the space has a sense of ownership and tidies up, and it also keeps the HOA’s liability insurance lower.
HOAs often restrict where you can drink alcohol and dictate whether or not you can bring glass bottles into a common space — particularly into the pool area. Some HOAs also have rules around food, such as no eating on the playground.
Other community space rules might involve timing for events. If you want to hold your kid’s birthday party in the clubhouse, you’ll probably have to reserve it in advance so it won’t be double-booked.
Most of these easy rules about common areas are simply common sense put into rule form. They’re meant to keep shared community spaces clean and safe for everyone who enjoys them.
Rules about renting
Most neighborhoods or condominium buildings with HOAs have rules about the percentage of homes or units that can be rented, or they flat-out don’t allow rentals.
“I see a lot of times in condo complexes that only 10% of the condos can be rented out,” Hartmann says. The HOA tracks which units are rentals, and if 10% have been rented, then you can’t rent your unit.
The HOA also might prohibit listing your house on Airbnb or any home-sharing, short-term, or vacation rental website. If you plan on supplementing your income by renting out all or a portion of your home, check the HOA regulations. This is especially important if you plan to live with roommates; you’ll want to make sure that any lease you draw up for long-term roommates does not interfere with your HOA’s rules.
Behaviors at your house
Following the rules in shared places in the community makes sense, but some people struggle with HOAs dictating how they behave at home. But again, most of the rules about behavior at your house just make it easier for everyone who lives there to get along.
The HOA board can fine you for excessive noise complaints, or might limit the number of people you can have at a party in your backyard. They also might set home occupancy limits, so your cousin can’t necessarily move in with you while they’re looking for an apartment if there are already a maximum number of adults living there.
The HOA could restrict the type of pets you keep in your home, the number of pets you have, often restricted to just two — two cats, two dogs, or a combination thereof — and the size of your pets. In some cases, if you’re moving in and already have three dogs, Hartmann says to make sure the HOA will allow it.
“They might grandfather the third dog,” she says, “but if it passes away, you can’t replace it with another dog.” When an HOA grandfathers something, it means that they make an exception for something that’s already in existence.
Don’t like looking at your neighbor’s trash bins out by the curb all week? You may like living in a neighborhood with an HOA. Trash and recycling rules could cover when trash bins can be put out, whether the lids have to close, and when the bins have to be brought back from the curb.
HOAs also set guidelines around how your property can be used. Don’t plan on converting your garage into a hair salon or another business, or working on your friend’s cars in your driveway, and outdoorsy types will have to store bikes or kayaks in a garage or shed.
Beth Mulcahy, Esq. is the founder and senior partner of Mulcahy Law Firm, P.C.. Her firm represents more than 1,000 homeowners associations in Arizona. According to her, what can and cannot be done on a property is one of the most frequently litigated areas of HOAs.
Architecture or appearance rules
You — and your neighbors — have to keep up on general home maintenance. This is one of the biggest benefits of having an HOA when it comes time to sell; you won’t have to worry about buyers seeing your neighbor’s beater car up on blocks in the driveway next door.
General exterior appearance rules cover acceptable colors for siding and trim, fence height, and whether you have to cover HVAC units or other equipment visible from the street with shrubbery.
The HOA could restrict lawn or holiday decorations and forbid political signs. It could even go far as to dictate the type and color of window coverings on street-facing windows.
You won’t be able to skip yard work, either. Almost all HOAs have rules around how high your grass can be, and they may also dictate the use of fertilizers and pesticides. (Before you get too upset about this, remember that it’s not uncommon for cities to fine residents for not cutting their grass or keeping bushes trimmed back in the alley, either.)
Further landscaping rules could prevent you from planting that huge oak tree in your backyard, as many HOAs have lists of what you’re allowed to plant and even where you can plant new trees. Some HOAs have additional restrictions around xeriscaping, starting a compost pile for kitchen scraps, or installing solar panels. Crunchy-granola types could resent these rules.
If you’re dreaming of adding a sun porch to the back of your new house, check the HOA rules before you close. Any additions to the house may have to conform to architectural guidelines or respect an established footprint. You also might have to pick your contractor from an approved list.
Getting approval from the HOA for a remodel or addition “can be contingent on using a licensed and bonded contractor,” Mulcahy warns, so don’t plan on doing it yourself. And that’s only if you’ve also met all use requirements under state law and obtained necessary permits (which you should do anyway).
Lastly, if you drive a company vehicle, you should know that some HOAs insist that your company car or truck remain in the garage. “Many company vehicles are too big to fit in ‘normal’ garages,” Hartmann points out, “which would then become a big problem for a buyer that overlooked this rule and is now trying to park their work vehicle at home.”
If it is allowed in the driveway, a company vehicle can’t have any visible signage or logos on it. Many of Hartmann’s clients have had to purchase magnetic covers to slap over their truck’s logo when they get home. RVs and campers could be banned from the driveway, and you could be limited to parking only up to a certain number of vehicles outside the garage.
Rules around responsibilities
HOA fees are another big sticking point for many home shoppers. How much you have to pay to live there covers upkeep and maintenance of common areas — like the pool — and HOA general liability insurance. And if you don’t want to pay, HOAs have methods to collect.
Mulcahy recommends looking at the association’s documents to find out how they enforce unpaid assessments. “Usually the association has the right to lien, file a personal lawsuit, and/or foreclose on the assessment lien,” she says. And sometimes they might be able to limit or prevent you from voting on HOA issues or using common areas if you’re delinquent on your dues.
You could have further responsibilities around carrying insurance with minimum levels of liability coverage or other coverage limits; your mortgage lender will likely also insist on this.
Get in an argument with a neighbor about their new fence? Your HOA could require you to agree to arbitrate instead of sue for any issues — both with neighbors and with the HOA itself. Your HOA might also have guidelines on how to transfer ownership when the time comes to sell.
It’s important to keep current on your dues, but it’s also important to ensure that whomever you’re buying the house from has kept current before you take ownership. Hartmann has seen instances where somebody passed away, the family listed the home and got it under contract, and then “the title comes back and it’s found that thousands and thousands of dollars of back HOA dues are owed.” A discovery like this could impact or ruin the sale, especially if there’s still a mortgage owed on the property.
The HOA’s covenants, codes, and restrictions (or CCRs) might look like an intimidating list when you first start reading, but when you really think about them, they often just boil down to common courtesy. Which makes life better for everybody!
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