Homeowners who live in a condominium, townhome, or similar type of planned community are subject to the rules and regulations of the managing homeowners association (HOA). These were typically drafted when the community was first built and founded. They typically include legal documents known as:
- articles of incorporation
- declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), and
- rules and regulations.
If you are an a homeowner, you have access to all of these governing documents. You should have been given copies and a chance to review them before closing on your property purchase. In particular, you should keep copies of the CC&Rs and rules and regulations in your records, accessible in case you ever have concerns about or disagree with an HOA action or decision.
Still Thinking About Buying? Read the CC&Rs and Other HOA Documents
Before you purchase a condo or home in an HOA-managed community, carefully read and perhaps have your lawyer take a look at its governing documents. Some of the material you'll find in these docs will be mostly legal boilerplate, such as in the articles of incorporation, which were simply necessary to establish your HOA as a legal entity under state law.
The documents get more interesting after that, however. The bylaws, for example, establish how the HOA is to be managed, covering such issues as who can serve on its board of directors, meeting procedures, board and community member voting rights, board enforcement powers, manner of budget creation, and so on.
This type of information may become very important to you someday if, for example, you want to attend a meeting and put an item on the agenda, perhaps to lower a special assessment the board has ordered you to pay.
The CC&Rs are normally the most lengthy and comprehensive of the governing documents, and will help you fully understand the terms of your ownership and your legal rights and financial and personal obligations. For example, the CC&Rs will likely lay out rules for maintaining and decorating your home (and explain what the HOA is required to maintain), keeping pets (or not), paying monthly HOA fees and any special assessments set by the HOA board, renting out your unit, using a community recreation area, and all other rules you'll need to follow once you move in.
The board may set out additional day-to-day rules in a separate document, with a title along the lines of "rules and regulations." These are particularly useful for matters that may change often, such as pool hours, guest policies, or disposal methods for trash and recycling.
Homeowners Can Act to Amend the Governing Documents
The bylaws, CC&Rs, and related documents can typically be changed if a minimum number of homeowners in the community vote to do so. The exact rules for doing this are most likely to be found in the bylaws.
If you regularly attend the HOA meetings that are held throughout the year, you should learn of and can vote on new issues that will affect the community. If you can't convince enough homeowners to agree to make a change to the rules, or even show up to meetings, it's unlikely that you'll be able to make a change to the CC&Rs. However, a lawyer might be able to help, particularly if the documents are unlawful on their face or you are being treated unfairly compared to other homeowners.
How HOA Rules Are Enforced
The CC&Rs and related documents not only provide rules to be followed by homeowners and the HOA, but also state the consequences for any infractions. HOA board members may be empowered to check for such infractions, for example by entering a homeowner's unit (after giving notice) to check for pets, improper window coverings, neglected maintenance, and so on.
If you disagree with an HOA rule, or don't think that you broke it, the CC&Rs likely grant you the right to tell your side of the story at an HOA hearing.
Where to Find the HOA Budget
For many homeowners, the most important information in the HOA paperwork is its yearly budget. While you were probably quoted a monthly dues amount when you bought into the community, that amount can, and is likely to, go up when the board reviews ongoing budgetary needs. In fact, an HOA can normally raise dues as high as is required to meet its annual budget amount. Your dues-payment obligations can include not only monthly dues, but special assessments for major repairs, improvements, or upgrades.
The CC&Rs should tell you how much your HOA can charge for ordinary maintenance, as well as for any special charges for more substantial repairs and improvements to the property.
Your HOA must, however, always follow state law in assessing these amounts. When it doesn't, an experienced real estate lawyer may be able to help you and other homeowners get a reduction in excessive charges.
Questions to Ask a Real Estate Lawyer
- I think our HOA board is abusing its power. Do the governing documents really allow it to take these current actions?
- Is this latest special assessment, for improvements that I believe are excessively luxurious, justifiable under our HOA's governing documents?
- How do I protest an HOA action or special assessment?
- What do we do when the governing documents are silent on a topic, such as keeping exotic pets, or starting an animal breeding business in someone's unit?