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Q & A: Understanding HOAs and CC&Rs

As a first-time homeowner, you might find yourself confused about the differences between a homeowner association (HOA) and Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs). You’ve no doubt heard horror stories about over-reaching HOAs wielding too much power over homeowners. After all, it’s your house, and if you want to attach a purple basketball hoop over the garage door for your daughters, it’s no one’s business. Right? Well, it might be if you have an HOA and CC&Rs. You should know that not every neighborhood comes with an HOA. However, most have CC&Rs. OK, let’s clear up some of the murkiness associated with this alphabet soup.

What exactly is an HOA?

A homeowner association is an organization of residents in single-family homes or multiple-unit dwellings that establishes and enforces property rules. The HOA governs the community it serves and should commit to protect and enhance the property value.

What kind of properties have HOAs?

Your home will likely come with a homeowners association if you live in a planned community, condo, townhouse, and sometimes a subdivision of single-family homes, especially if the latter comes with some common areas like community pools or parks.

What duties does an HOA perform?

It depends on which of the three types of HOAs you have: condo, townhouse, or single-family home.

Condo HOAs typically have the most restrictive rules and the most responsibility. For example, the HOA in a condominium complex regulates all of the exterior and common areas of the property and bears the responsibility to repair, replace and maintain the developments’ clubhouses, parks, swimming pools, tennis courts, fitness facilities, parking spaces, and any other areas owned in common by the residents. They also can be responsible for roof and siding repairs and exterior painting. Many condo HOAs even handle homeowners’ insurance, and some boards purchase bulk cable and internet contracts for the community.

Although condominium HOAs can’t tell you what to do inside the walls of your unit, they can regulate just about everything that goes on from your exterior walls – you don’t own those outside walls – to your front yard space. That includes the type of window coverings you have – sorry, but those can be seen from the outside – to what shrubs you plant and how you decorate for the holidays. You see, condo boards like properties that are uniform and tidy. And if you think about it, that’s probably what attracted you to a condo in the first place. Condos remain pristine by not letting residents go rogue by painting their colonial blue shutters sunshine yellow and planting a mini cactus garden where symmetrical boxwoods once sat.

Townhouse HOAs are somewhat less restrictive than condos because they generally have fewer responsibilities and amenities, thus, smaller HOA fees. Plus, townhouse residents own more of their homes. Unlike condo owners who only own the interior of their residence, fee-simple townhouse owners own the exterior walls and sometimes yard space. The HOA maintains the grounds and other amenities. Since HOAs play smaller roles in townhouses, owners have more freedom to personalize their properties. That said, check with the board before you stick happy faces all over your mailbox.

Single-family homes don’t always have HOAs, but increasingly more of them do these days. Of the three HOAs, these generally have the lowest fees because they cover far less than the others. Single-family residence HOAs typically cover common areas such as neighborhood green spaces, tennis courts, and swimming pools. Homeowners are responsible for their own home and yard maintenance. And depending on the neighborhood, you might find that the HOA restricts street parking, and you could get a warning letter in your mailbox if your lawn needs cutting.

How much are HOA fees?

HOA fees run to extremes, and the state you live in also determines prices. You can find fees as low as $50 a month for barebones provisions from the HOA up to $1,000 or more for white-glove service. The more amenities and services, the higher the HOA fees. Generally, HOA fees average around $300 per month.

Can I opt out of my HOA?

Sorry, no. When you buy any home with an HOA in place, you automatically become a member. One exception would be living somewhere without an existing HOA, and the community decides to form a homeowner association. Then, you should be allowed to opt out.

Who runs HOAs?

An HOA usually has an elected board of directors or governors that enforce and oversee the rules and regulations found in its Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions. Note, however, that each state enacts statutes authorizing HOAs, and state laws and regulations govern how the homeowner associations operate. Therefore, the HOA governing board is bound by these laws and can’t arbitrarily make its own rules outside the CC&Rs.

Who can serve on an HOA?

HOAs are self-governing entities with the idea that those living in a specific community are the best fit to manage that community. So, any resident may run for an HOA board. Run? That’s right; you have to get elected to the board of directors by other members before you can serve. Typically, these volunteer positions last one year.

How do I know if the property I’m looking at has an HOA?

HOAs aren’t secret societies. When you’re scrolling any real estate site, look for “HOA fees.” Then, depending on the site, look for “monthly cost” or “home details.” The monthly fee will be listed. Also, your real estate agent will have the HOA details on any property you see.

If you’re considering purchasing a home with an HOA, here are two words that will serve you well: Due diligence. First, there are benefits to living in a regulated community, but not everyone wants what they consider normal activities placed on a short leash. And once you’re living in a property governed by an HOA, you must follow all of the rules and pay the HOA fees each month without fail. So, knowing what’s expected of you is crucial before you make the purchase.

Conduct your due diligence by doing the following:

  • Request a walk-through of all common areas, including indoor and outdoor amenities. For instance, is the swimming pool in good condition? If there’s a clubhouse, does it look as if it’s in good repair? Is the landscaping well-maintained?
  • Know who’s running the board. Ask residents or request to speak to the HOA president to get a feel about how the association functions. Request the minutes from previous months. They’re not private documents.
  • Read the CC&Rs carefully so that you’re aware of the rules and limitations you’ll be required to follow.
  • Consult a real estate attorney if this is your first time buying a home with an HOA or if you’re unsure of what’s required of you once you purchase the property. You don’t want any unpleasant surprises once you close. For instance, moving in with your 100-pound Rottweiler when the CC&Rs stipulate that only dogs 25 pounds and under are allowed per unit can cause some severe complications.

Remember that your HOA will essentially serve as a mini-government for your specific neighborhood or community, so knowing who’s in charge and how it’s run is worth your time and effort to research.

What are Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs)?

Pared down, CC&Rs are your planned community’s rules and guidelines. They govern what you can, can’t, or must do concerning your home. For example, the CC&Rs might forbid residents and guests to park any type of truck in the driveway or street overnight. In addition, they might regulate basketball hoops, satellite dishes, TV antennas, and even the type of fence you can install. 

Not so much in single-family homes, but in condos and some townhouses, the CC&Rs can even regulate the size of animals permitted. They could, for instance, allow only one pet, under a specific weight, per unit. Legally binding, the CC&Rs are usually recorded in the land records in the county where the property is located.

I don’t have an HOA, so do I still have CC&Rs?

Usually, CC&Rs are drafted and enforced through the HOAs in condo and townhouse developments considered common interest communities. However, although many single-family subdivisions don’t have an HOA, many of them have CC&Rs. When you don’t have a governing body to oversee or enforce the rules and guidelines, you might think that you have a lot of leeway with what you do with your property. Not necessarily. Enforcement varies from state to state, and if the CC&R are recorded with the state, they become deeded with the property and are enforceable. But by whom?

Who enforces CC&Rs without an HOA?

Well, if you decide that your neighbor isn’t complying with the rules set in the CC&Rs —maybe they painted their house a flashy color or set up a clothesline to hang their sheets to dry in the front yard — you can try to enforce the CC&Rs through arbitration or by filing a lawsuit. You might have a better chance at winning if you gather a committee of neighbors to go in with you. Although you technically have legal standing, you could risk losing out-of-pocket money if you don’t win the lawsuit.

How do I find CC&Rs for my property?

You should have received a copy of the CC&Rs long before you ever signed a purchase agreement. After all, they’re part of the property’s disclosure. If you lost your copy before closing, ask your real estate agent to get you another copy. You can also contact a local title company.

I have an HOA, so what happens if I don’t comply with the CC&Rs?

HOAs don’t play around. For instance, if you don’t abide by the CC&Rs, you could end up with a fine or find yourself unable to use any of the amenities on the property. If you don’t pay your HOA dues, the penalties are far worse. In that case, the HOA could place a lien on your home, sue you or, as a last resort, foreclose. But, again, the laws vary in each state. Some states mandate that HOAs offer payment plans to delinquent homeowners.

What do I do if the HOA is threatening to fine me?

If you receive a notice of violation in your mailbox saying you’ve let the weeds take over your yard, but you deliberately planted native perennials, then carefully go over the CC&Rs to make sure you have standing, get your evidence in order and appeal to the board. The HOA meetings are open to all residents.

Final word

Living with a homeowner association can come with plenty of perks ranging from impeccable landscaping to ritzy amenities. But it’s not uncommon to hear about HOA boards power tripping. If that gives you pause while house hunting, you should also know that, no matter what the board president says, homeowner associations are bound by the rule of law. State and federal law restrict the HOA’s abilities to restrict its residents.

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