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Homeowners Association Basics

Most cities and towns have zoning requirements that promote uniformity in neighborhoods. They ban homeowners from making unrestricted changes to their houses. This keeps people from things like:

  • Adding third stories to two-story structures
  • Building three-car garages up to the neighbor's property line
  • Tearing down a house to make room for two homes on the same lot

But zoning laws don't address everything. There are limits to city and state laws, and the government can't restrict everything. By default, most communities have no power to force homeowners to:

  • Use specific colors for their exterior walls
  • Keep their lawns well-manicured
  • Take down holiday decorations after a specific date

Private governing documents created by homeowners associations enforce these rules. This article will discuss HOAs and the types of residential properties that use them.

Basic Information on HOA Operation

HOAs have bylaws that determine how HOA board members get elected. The HOA board members serve fixed terms. For example, a condominium association's HOA community may:

  • Pass special assessments and set HOA fees
  • Collect HOA dues for upkeep and maintenance
  • Create HOA rules and amendments for HOA management
  • Hire a management company to safeguard a building's reserve fund

Unlike government regulations, association laws are internal to an HOA and its private community. But, HOA rules can't violate federal or state laws. For example, an HOA can't limit access to a clubhouse in a discriminatory way.

Common Interest Developments and Planned Communities

Common interest developments (CIDs) are residential communities that have some restrictions on property use. This is partly to maintain the value of the homes in the planned development community. The CID, sometimes called a planned unit development, combines the security of home ownership with the convenience of minimal maintenance. These communities often provide residents with self-contained communities with shared amenities such as:

  • Swimming pools
  • Parks
  • Tennis courts
  • Buildings for community events

Some CIDs have single-unit houses, while others have attached homes or townhomes. Oversight of the common areas is the responsibility of the homeowners' association (HOA). It's the HOA's responsibility to:

  • Maintain common areas
  • Manage the CID's budget
  • Ensure residents abide by the community's regulations

Condos and Co-ops

A CID differs somewhat from a condominium or a cooperative/co-op. A condominium owner owns only the interior space of the unit. The exterior walls are part of the common space. So, a condominium property owners' association maintains them. (By contrast, townhouse owners also have control over the exterior of their homes.)

In a cooperative, owners hold shares in a corporation that owns the property. Each resident owns shares that correspond to a specific unit. The cooperative fees pay for building maintenance inside and out.

Planned Communities in the U.S.

With a CID, the resident owns the entire structure and the land on which it sits. CID residents are responsible for the exterior upkeep of their own homes. But, the community must maintain the shared amenities. Many also take care of landscaping.

In home buying, the benefits of a CID are a selling point. According to the Community Associations Institute (CAI), a national advocacy and education group, there were:

  • 355,000 association-governed communities in the United States in 2020
  • More than 27.5 million housing units
  • More than 74 million residents in community associations

In contrast, in 1970 there were:

  • Only 10,000 such communities
  • 701,000 housing units
  • 2.1 million residents

A survey conducted for CAI by polling group Zogby International in 2020 showed strong satisfaction among CID owners. About 90% of survey respondents reported CID living as a positive experience. Only 10% said it was a negative experience. About 94% of respondents said the association rules and regulations enhanced the CID's property values.

Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs)

The community rules and regulations are covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). But CC&Rs are also the basis for many resident complaints. CC&Rs generally cover the exterior appearance of each home, and their goal is to create a uniform environment. The difficulty arises when the homeowners' association and residents have a different idea of what "uniform" means.

Some CIDs have very general guidelines that allow people to express a certain degree of individuality as long as their homes are well-kept. Other CIDs have CC&Rs that ban residents from:

  • Choosing their paint trim colors
  • Planting trees or shrubs
  • Hanging a non-approved color of curtains in their windows

There may also be rules about snow removal, lawn care, signs, flags, and holiday decorations. Often, the CC&Rs are in property deeds. For example, a house deed can have a restrictive covenant that limits certain land uses.

Legal Help With Your HOA

It can be challenging to deal with an HOA, and a real estate agent can only help so much. Some members of a homeowners' board are overzealous and can make life difficult. Homeowners looking to mind their own business might find themselves clashing with HOAs. Yet, other HOAs fail to enforce the rules against clear violations.

Talk to a real estate attorney for legal advice if you have questions or legal concerns when dealing with a neighbor or HOA. They can address your frequently asked questions (FAQs) and more.

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