Real Estate

Homeowners' Rights and Duties in an HOA

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
Feeling the pinch of overly restrictive HOA rules? Here's what you can do.

When you own a home within a community or development that is managed by a homeowners' association (HOA), the rights and responsibilities of both the HOA and you (along with other homeowners) will be governed by rules contained in various governing documents. These rules can, with a bit of work, be changed; but only by following the rules themselves.

While an HOA's rules can be quite restrictive, they are limited by state and local laws, which frequently have special sections in place to curb and guide the actions of homeowners' associations.

What Rules Govern Homeowners in HOA-Run Communities

Your HOA creates and enforces a variety of documents, including its founding bylaws, covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), and possibly a less formal set of community rules and regulations. You will need to know what the various rules are governing your HOA, and to follow them.

When you buy a home in such a community, you are essentially agreeing to these rules. (Saying that you didn't read them is not an excuse; at least, not if the HOA did as it was supposed to do, and provided you with a copy before you finalized the purchase.)

The rules governing HOA homeowners cover everything from when you can play loud music to where you can park your car and whether you can hang laundry in your back yard. (Note, however, that California law forbids HOAs from creating unreasonable restrictions on homeowners hanging laundry.)

How Homeowners Can Wield Their Voting Rights to Change HOA Rules

If you have come to believe that any of the rules governing your HOA community are unfair, you and your fellow homeowners may be able to take action, and ultimately vote to change them.

Start by reading your HOA's bylaws and CC&Rs. These should set forth rules and procedures for proposing and passing amendments; perhaps requiring that a certain number of homeowners attend an HOA meeting and/or that a minimum number of votes be cast in favor of the proposed change.

If any of the HOA bylaws or CC&Rs are flat-out illegal under the law of your state, or are being applied in an illegal or discriminatory fashion, it may be time to contact a lawyer instead of waiting to cast your vote.

How Homeowners Can Contest Payment of Fees and Assessments

An HOA almost always requires homeowners to pay monthly fees, which are then used to cover the cost of repairing and maintaining community property. For example, the fees might go toward hiring landscapers during the summer months and snow-removal services during the winter months. The HOA may also levy special assessments in case of unexpected expenses affecting the community, for example flood damage in a situation where the HOA had no flood insurance.

You have the right, as a homeowner and HOA member, to question whether the amount you're being charged is reasonable.

In most cases, however, you can't just stop paying the fees without taking some formal action first. If you stop paying fees without taking such action, your HOA may be able to put a lien on your house and ultimately even foreclose. When this happens, the debt may not go away until the (former) homeowner pays it.

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