Want to change your landscaping? Better get permission. Want to repaint your house? Better use an “approved” color. Want to leave your bike on your patio? Better not, unless you’re willing to risk a fine.

Americans tend to believe “my home is my castle,” but more than 73 million people in the US now reside in developments under the rule of homeowners associations (HOAs). Although HOA rules provide many benefits, which include a quality of life and esthetic standard for the neighborhood, they also can be frustrating when you realize that you do not have the final say over certain aspects of your life and property.

Unfortunately, home buyers often don’t bother reading the rules until after they’ve purchased property, so they feel blindsided when they receive a warning that they have left their ­garage door open once too often or committed some other HOA “crime” and must make changes and/or pay fines. Some react with righteous indignation and even lawsuits. Example: A Kansas resident has been locked in a legal battle with his HOA for seven years over small, decorative stone walls he installed around planting beds in his yard. The total legal costs of this dispute reportedly have reached nearly $1 million.

6 Common Rules

If you don’t live under an HOA now, there’s a good chance that you will in the future—they’re growing quickly, with 63% more residents now than in 2000. Here’s what you need to know to navigate life successfully (or to decide whether you really want to live in one of these communities)…

Among the common categories of rules that can cause problems for even well-meaning home owners…

Home owners usually must maintain their yards in a way that conforms to the HOA’s standards. Don’t have time to mow one weekend? You might receive a scolding letter and/or a fine if your grass exceeds the height limit. Many HOAs restrict the types or sizes of trees, shrubs, fences and yard art. Some place restrictions on the types of plants allowed in gardens (some ban vegetable gardens, for instance)…limit where gardens can be located on properties…or prohibit gardens entirely. 

Permission likely is required to change virtually anything about the exterior appearance of your home. In order to maintain a consistent neighborhood look and feel, HOAs often permit only a small number of approved exterior paint colors and/or roofing materials. In fact, any modification to your home’s exterior appearance—even its mailbox—might require approval from a board ­established by the HOA. Rules even might dictate the color and type of window blinds you can have inside your home, because these can be seen from outside. 

Warning: The philosophy that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” does not work in these situations. If you make changes without approval, the board might fine you and force you to undo the changes.

There often are pet limits. Some HOAs ban pets, while others cap the number a home owner can have and/or prohibit certain species or breeds. In some cases, rules specify that pets cannot exceed a certain weight—you could be forced to get rid of a beloved puppy because it grew up to be a bigger dog than expected. Service animals, however, typically are allowed even if rules ban pets. 

Helpful: Although most states allow the bans, California state law requires that HOAs permit home owners to have at least one dog, cat, domestic bird or aquarium-dwelling aquatic animal. 

Expect extensive rules about where you can park and even what vehicles you can own. The rules might ban parking on the road, parking on your lawn and, less often, parking overnight in your driveway. You might not be allowed to store boats and RVs at all. There also might be a cap on the ­total number of vehicles allowed on a property…restrictions on your right to perform maintenance on your car in your driveway…and fines for driveway oil stains. Some HOAs do not allow ­vehicles to be parked in driveways if they have visible body damage. ­Example: A Missouri man was assessed thousands of dollars in penalties and fines this year and threatened with foreclosure on his home because his ­antique 1965 pickup truck had a “patina finish”—a paint job that intentionally showed the vehicle’s age. 

Your balcony or patio might not technically be your own property. In some HOAs—this is most common in condo associations—the outdoor living space attached to your home might ­technically be designated a common area, even if you are the only one who has access to it. If so, the HOA can tell you what you can do there and store there. Example: You might not be able to store your bike on your own balcony or use certain types of barbecue grills on decks, patios or balconies.

Certain interior home renovations might require approval. Many HOAs have rules dictating that garages cannot be converted into living space, for example. If you live in a condo or an attached home, anything beneath the paint on your walls might officially be a common area, not your personal property, which means virtually any renovation more extensive than applying a new coat of interior paint is likely to require board approval. Example: If you live in a condo, you likely need approval to add a door between two interior rooms…or add a new electrical outlet. 

How To Avoid Problems

Be sure to read the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs). This is the long, boring set of rules that you agree to abide by when you purchase the property. If you can’t find your copy, you should be able to obtain a replacement from the board or management company (which might charge a fee for a replacement copy)…from your county recorder’s office or its website…and/or from one of your neighbors in the association. 

If you receive a letter from the board informing you that you have somehow run afoul of the rules, resist the common urge to respond with anger or indignation. Instead, review the relevant section of the CC&Rs. Maybe the board is indeed being petty or sticking its nose into your business—but if the CC&Rs back its position, the law ­almost certainly is on its side.

Exception: If the board informs you that you must remove your satellite dish from your roof, the law likely isn’t on its side, even if your CC&Rs prohibit dishes. FCC rules designed to ensure access to satellite dishes override such prohibitions, as long as the dish is not more than one meter (about 3.3 feet) in diameter and not in a common area. 

If after reviewing the relevant CC&Rs you still believe that the HOA is wrong and you are right—not just morally right, but on the right side of the HOA’s rules—request in writing a hearing on the matter or raise the topic at the next board meeting. (The letter you receive might include instructions for how to appeal the ruling.) Calmly and objectively describe the situation and the letter you received, then explain why you do not believe you violated the CC&Rs…and/or ask the board to point out the specific section of the CC&Rs that prohibits whatever you are accused of doing. Photos of the area in question may be helpful, along with photos of similar conditions that have been approved for other home owners.

When people believe that they’ve been falsely accused or otherwise mistreated, it is natural to feel anger. Do not display this anger. Raising your voice, insulting the board or otherwise venting your emotions will only deepen the animosity between you and the board—a board that, like it or not, has considerable power over you. 

Refusing to pay fines and fees in protest won’t improve your situation—the board likely has the right to continue levying fines, put a lien on your home and (eventually) even foreclose on your property. Taking the association to court could get expensive and damage your relationships with your neighbors—you’ll have to pay your legal bills out of pocket while the HOA pays its lawyers out of member dues, meaning that your neighbors effectively end up stuck with the bills. 

If you feel you must do something about a petty board or egregious rule, vote for different board members in the next election or run for the board yourself. Or perhaps you will decide that HOA living is not for you. 

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