What to Know About Unenforceable HOA Rules

Whether you’re in search of a new home or currently living in an HOA community, it’s essential that you understand the HOA rules that govern your neighborhood. Even though HOA guidelines are designed to keep communities safe and clean for all residents, there are times when these associations can be too demanding and unreasonable. In fact, some of the rules that HOAs attempt to enforce can be illegal. 

Unenforceable HOA Rules

Defining HOAs

A homeowners association is a type of entity that’s tasked with enforcing various rules and guidelines pertaining to how a community or neighborhood is governed. These associations are commonly found in planned development communities. If you live in an attached unit, your HOA might be referred to as a condo association.

If you’re wondering why you need to pay monthly or quarterly dues to an HOA, the money you give this association is often put towards maintaining property values and making sure that the community’s quality of life remains high. Every HOA rule is found in the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CCRs). The community members who are placed on the HOA board will oversee the rules, collect resident fees, set property maintenance conditions, and manage all communal spaces.

Are HOA Rules Enforceable

All CCRs and HOA rules are enforceable and legally binding unless they qualify as being unenforceable. If you do something that violates the HOA guidelines, you’ll effectively be breaking a contract that you entered when you purchased a home in the community. The legal powers that an HOA has access to include filing a lawsuit, assessing fines, and putting a lien on your property.

Unenforceable HOA Rules

There are many different types of unenforceable HOA rules. These rules include ones that violate your rights and ones that were incorrectly enacted.

Rules that Violate Your Rights

While an HOA’s governing documents are legally binding, constitutional rights, state laws, and federal laws take precedence. If a rule is deemed to be violating the law, it can’t be enforced. The types of rules that violate the law can involve everything from freedom of speech issues to discrimination.

Freedom of speech is a common area of disagreement between HOAs and homeowners. In most cases, these disagreements center around political speech and political signs. Many HOAs place restrictions on the types of signs you can place in your yard. In fact, it’s possible for all signs to be banned.

While an HOA might have the ability to impose these rules, there are some states where associations don’t have much control in this regard. For instance, an HOA in Maryland can’t keep homeowners from placing political signs in their yards close to election time. While HOAs usually aren’t allowed to stop homeowners from placing the American flag on their properties, they are often able to put limits on the size the flag can be.

HOA rules are also unenforceable if they are considered discriminatory, which is defined by the Federal Fair Housing Act. This law prevents HOAs from discriminating against prospective homeowners and existing homeowners based on everything from national origin and religion to race and sex. Keep in mind that certain states have gone further than the Federal Fair Housing Act to defend protected classes. If you purchase an HOA home in California, this law also provides protection based on gender identity.

Because of the Second Amendment that provides people with the right to bear arms, HOAs aren’t allowed to stop homeowners from owning guns or other weapons. However, associations do have the right to restrict these weapons from being taken into communal or open spaces throughout the community.

The Fair Housing Act also places restrictions on an HOA’s ability to enforce rules that infringe on someone’s religious freedom. Even though this law is in place, the HOA rule needs to be specific for it to be unenforceable. If an HOA decides that religious activities or displays aren’t allowed in a common area, it can be enforced as long as the language doesn’t place this restriction on a specific religion.

There are a few additional state and federal laws that make certain rules unenforceable. For instance, many states don’t allow HOAs to stop homeowners from drying their laundry on a clothesline. Several states maintain laws that allow all homeowners to use plants that don’t require a large amount of water. An HOA can’t enforce rules pertaining to this form of landscaping.

Improperly Enacted Rules

A rule can’t be enforced if it has been improperly enacted in any way. An HOA usually places all its rules and covenants in the declaration when the community is first incorporated. These rules can be enforced without issue. If, however, an HOA attempts to change their rules once you’ve purchased a home in the community, they must follow specific guidelines for the change to be enforceable.

You should be able to find the exact guidelines on how to enact a rule change in the HOA’s governing documents or state laws. If the rule change occurs without adhering to the governing documents or laws, it can’t be enforced.

As an example, Georgia requires all associations to have a super-majority vote for an amendment to be made to the declaration. The threshold for a super-majority vote can be practically anything as long as it’s more than a simple majority of 50%. The HOA itself might also have guidelines in place that must be met to amend its documents. These guidelines can involve a written petition.

Can HOA Fine You Without Proof?

It’s possible that an HOA won’t have authority to act when it comes to a specific rule. In this scenario, the rule could be unenforceable. One example of this rule is when a fine is levied. While HOAs are able to assess fines when a homeowner violates an enforceable rule, they aren’t allowed to fine a homeowner for no reason. When you violate one of their rules, they must send you a written notice of the violation and give you time to fix it.

Selectively Enforced Rules

If the HOA has rules that aren’t being enforced equally, it’s likely that the rules are unenforceable. The HOA’s governing documents as well as state laws dictate what procedure associations must follow when they enforce a rule. This procedure usually involves providing the homeowner with a written notice and an opportunity to make their defense to the board. If these procedures are not followed correctly or are administered selectively, homeowners have the right to challenge the HOA’s enforcement of this rule.

If you believe that an HOA has engaged in selective enforcement, legal action may be possible. However, you must be able to prove that you were targeted for breaking HOA guidelines while other homeowners weren’t. Winning this argument may prove challenging without clear evidence.

If you’re wondering how to fight an HOA, there are several methods you can use to defend yourself. The main option available to you is to speak directly with the board, which can be done with a formal letter or in-person. You could also go through a dispute resolution process, which some states require before you file a lawsuit. Dispute resolution might involve everything from arbitration to mediation. If all else fails, it’s possible to take legal action via a lawsuit in state or federal court.