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What happens if you are in conflict with HOA rules?

How to avoid conflict and settle disputes with your homeowners association

Homeowners Association rules—also called Covenants, Conditions,and Restrictions (CC&Rs)—can be restrictive and sometimes frustrating. But properly executed CC&Rs are also legally binding. The HOA has the right to enforce them with fines, liens, and other methods. However, HOA powers aren’t absolute, and they must follow federal and state laws.

The HOA’s enforcement power

The CC&Rs and HOA bylaws spell out what the HOA may regulate and how. These documents are usually quite thorough.

HOA bylaws give the homeowners' association the ability to assess dues and other fees, plus regulate many aspects of your property, such as:

  • Color of your front door
  • Size, color, and type of your fence
  • Landscaping options
  • The kind of vehicle you may park in your driveway

HOA bylaws also give the HOA authority to take a wide range of actions:

  • Assess fines for any rules violations.
  • Enter your property to determine if you’re breaking a rule and/or fix the violation.
  • Sue if you repeatedly violate the rules and/or refuse to fix the violation.

You may be responsible for the HOA’s legal fees if it wins. Some states allow HOAs to put a lien on your property to recover unpaid dues, fines, and legal fees. In some cases it may even be able to foreclose on the property.

However, homeowners association rules also apply to the HOA itself. The bylaws and CC&Rs may include a requirement for written notification and time to fix the problem before the HOA can take further action.

State laws may also regulate what HOAs can do. For example, some states require arbitration or mediation before an HOA can sue.

When the HOA steps out of bounds

The HOA’s duties include enforcing the rules fairly and consistently. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and the HOA may exceed its authority. Examples of this may include:

  • Issuing a violation notice for something that’s not addressed in the CC&Rs. They can’t make up rules as they go.
  • Fining you for a violation it has ignored from many other members (selective enforcement). This one can be tricky. Usually the violations must be of the same type. So you can’t justify your purple front door by arguing the HOA isn’t enforcing the rule against basketball hoops.
  • Trying to write or enforce rules that violate state or federal law. For example, HOAs cannot ban American flag displays, a right protected under federal law. However, they can regulate things like size and placement of the flag.

Deciding when and how to fight back

If you’ve violated a rule, it’s often easiest to fix the issue and pay any fine. But, if you truly believe the HOA is being overly restrictive, violating the law, or selectively enforcing its rules, you may want to fight back. In most cases your first step would be written notification and/or a meeting with the HOA board to discuss your concerns. In some cases, you may be eligible to file a claim in small claims court. Make sure the value of your claim falls within the limits of small claims court in your state, which can vary widely.

If you’re not sure what proof you may need or what your legal rights are, a lawyer familiar with HOA matters can help. A real estate lawyer can send letters on your behalf and represent you in mediation or court if necessary. Also, having a lawyer on your side may make an HOA more willing to negotiate with you.

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