Homeowners associations are becoming more common as over 80% of all new residential construction in the States is now part of one. But what are they and what do you need to know about them before becoming a homeowner?
At their very best, they maintain property value, curb appeal, and safety in the local community. However, at their extreme worst, they are fine-wielding nitpickers who can make your life a nightmare.
When living in an HOA, you must be aware of the rules to avoid fines and stressful situations. The last thing you want to do is to get into a spat with your HOA board over something that causes more headaches than it’s worth.
But there are some unenforceable HOA rules that you have every right to contest if your association tries to implement them.
Let’s take a look at what an HOA is, its growing presence, seven standard unenforceable rules, and the pros and cons of being part of one.
What Is a Homeowners Association?
An HOA is designed to oversee a neighborhood with a board of directors who are voted for by community members. They care for the exterior maintenance of all homes, conserving and increasing property prices, and making sure common areas are enjoyable and safe for everyone.
A typical HOA establishes a set of rules (formally referred to as Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions [CC&Rs] & Bylaws) along with a monthly fee to cover the cost of any amenities or offerings the association provides. An HOA's CC&Rs will vary depending on the community it governs and this in turn greatly affects the monthly fees that will be levied.
How Many Homes Are Part of an HOA?
The latest data from the Census reveals an increase in the number of new homes sold that are part of an HOA. In 2009, 233,000 new homes were part of an HOA, which was 62% of all new homes that year. That has since increased to 536,000 in 2022, which amounts to a staggering 84% of all new homes. This means that the vast majority of all new-home homeowners now live under HOA rules and guidelines.
7 Common Unenforceable HOA Rules
While rules will differ from state to state and association to association, there are some common unenforceable HOA rules for which boards cannot legally make you comply.
1. Any rule that discriminates
No HOA can breach the terms set in the Fair Housing Act. Housing discrimination means wrongly putting rules in place which are aimed unfairly at a certain group of people, based on their sex (inc. gender identity and sexual orientation), ethnicity, disability, nation of origin, religion, or family status. So if you come across this type of discrimination you are well within your rights to report it to the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).
2. Rules without prior authorization
Some HOA board members may get carried away when it comes to taking disciplinary action against homeowners. They may not be happy with a certain aspect of your yard for example, but unless it has been made formally part of the community’s rules, it is unenforceable.
This may be obvious, but due to the many rules that some homeowners face, it's not impossible to just assume that a rule is authorized. Adhering to said rule or paying any fine often seems like the quickest and easiest solution.
3. Rules that don’t follow procedures
Continuing on from the previous point, an HOA board cannot introduce any new rule unless the correct procedures set out in the CC&Rs have been followed. This often includes needing a majority vote from board members to introduce new rules. If you believe the correct procedures have not been met, you are going to want to ask to see the appropriate documents.
4. Prohibiting flying the American flag
Being a patriot and flying the stars and stripes outside your home is protected by the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. If your association tells you to remove a flag from your property, you can kindly let them know that they are breaching public law and they cannot force you to take it down.
However, many associations do have the right to restrict the size of the flag.
5. Stopping you from voicing your political support
When election time rolls around, you may wish to support your favorite candidate by placing a sign in your front yard or wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. In many states, but not all, your HOA has no right to restrict your freedom of speech. Similarly to flags, your association may restrict the size of signs. They may also only allow you to have them on display close to election time.
6. Banning you from using a clothesline
Another somewhat more on the absurd side of unenforceable HOA rules is that of banning the use of clotheslines. While in some states they can stop you from airing your laundry, many states have rules in place that mean that you have the right to hang out your wet clothes.
Again, despite having the ‘right to dry’ law in your state, HOAs can put restrictions on the size of a clothesline and its placement.
7. Having a satellite or antenna
Your HOA may tell you to limit the size and placement of your satellite dish or antenna, but they cannot tell you to remove it altogether. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) signed into law the Over-the-Air Reception Devices (OTARD) rule meaning that homeowners are free to receive video broadcasting through these means on their properties.
Identifying Unenforceable HOA Rules
Your HOA cannot enforce any rule that breaches state or federal laws. Therefore, if this is the case, you can let your association know that they are in the wrong and report it. Examples previously mentioned, such as clotheslines and antenna bans, are protected by state or federal law which trumps CC&Rs set out by HOAs.
Another way to ensure that policies are being made following all correct procedures is to attend public community meetings. This way if you have any discrepancies with the process, you can call them out.
Can You Refuse to Join a Homeowners Association?
Whether or not you can refuse to join usually depends on the type of HOA in your community. There are some instances where you can decline to join an HOA. If you bought your home before an HOA is formed you can generally refuse if you wish. If you buy a home that has a voluntary HOA, then you are also free to choose not to join if you prefer.
However, the most common type of HOA is a mandatory one. This means that if you buy a home that pertains to an HOA, you are obligated to join, pay the fees, and abide by the rules and guidelines.
Pros and Cons of HOAs
Advantages of being part of an HOA:
If you find that your dream home is part of an HOA and you are unsure whether to buy it or maybe you are considering joining your voluntary association, there are advantages that come along with membership:
Maintaining a clean and cohesive aesthetic throughout the community.
Providing access to shared spaces and amenities like green spaces, pools and playgrounds, clubhouses, and other items.
Many HOAs cover landscaping and exterior maintenance and repair on homes, repairing or replacing items like siding, roofing, and fencing. Considering that a typical roof repair costs around $900, you may prefer to have this unforeseen expense taken care of.
The ever-important consideration of property value. HOAs provide a great advantage here because the neighborhood is kept visually appealing to potential buyers as all homes are well-maintained and complementary to one another.
Disadvantages of being part of an HOA:
Even the most popular HOAs have their disadvantages. The most common are:
Monthly fees are set and non-negotiable regardless of whether you partake in the amenities offered or not.
Some homeowners have complained about the lack of freedom in areas such as exterior colors, fixtures and landscaping, pet restrictions, home occupancy limits, and even what type of vehicles may be parked at a residence.
For those that don't follow the rules set, there can be legal and financial consequences including the HOA's ability to place a lien on your home.
Don’t Get Caught Out by Unenforceable HOA Rules
When it comes down to it, living in an area that belongs to a homeowners’ association doesn’t have to be a negative ordeal. They promote bonding with neighbors and create a real community atmosphere which can feel great to be a part of. However, you want to be cautious. We have all heard horror stories about homeowners clashing with HOAs. Make sure you are up to scratch with all there is to know about your HOA, and if you are undertaking renovations, make sure you know how to get your HOAs approval first.
Adam Graham is an industry analyst at Fixr.com. He analyzes and writes about the real estate and home construction industries, covering a range of associated topics. He has been featured in publications such as Better Homes and Gardens and The Boston Globe and has written for various outlets including the National Association of Realtors, and Insurance News Net Magazine.