Condo & HOA Tips & Advice Blog | All Property Management

Enforceable vs. Unenforceable HOA Rules: A Guide for Association Boards

| 4 min. read

HOAs—Homeowners Associations—play a pivotal role in maintaining community standards and fostering harmonious living environments. While understanding the importance of balancing residents' rights and ethical considerations can be challenging, association boards can create enforceable and ethical rules while fostering a harmonious and inclusive community. 

This guide will provide association boards with practical guidance on navigating tricky situations and arriving at ethical and honest decisions that benefit the community. 

Who Enforces HOA Rules? The Role of HOAs and Association Boards

If you've recently been elected to the HOA board or just moved into the neighborhood, it's crucial to begin with a thorough understanding of the role of the HOA. Property owners who move into an HOA-governed neighborhood agree to adhere to the rules in place and maintain their property according to these regulations. 

A quick overview: homeowner's associations are responsible for maintaining common areas, collecting fees from residents to fund community services and amenities, and—especially important for this topic— enforcing rules and regulations.. 

Elected by community members to uphold agreed-upon rules for the neighborhood, HOA boards aim to create and maintain standards that both enhance property values and enrich the quality of life for all neighborhood residents. 

While it may seem simple enough—establish rules, then enforce the rules—HOA boards walk a tightrope between community cohesion and individual property rights that can, at times, be challenging to navigate. 

Knowing what your board can and cannot enforce is what makes it possible to strike that balance, so let’s jump right into what types of rules fall into each category.

Enforceable HOA Rules

HOA rules should be understood as essential tools for preserving community aesthetics, property values, and quality of life for all neighborhood residents. However, HOA power is limited by federal and state law and cannot, under any circumstances, overstep those bounds. 

Property maintenance standards, certain pet regulations, and architectural guidelines are all within the realm of enforceable HOA rules. Yet even enforceable rules must be enforced consistently to be considered valid. 

Generally speaking, there are four standards that an HOA rule must meet to be enforceable:

  1. Compliance with state and federal laws 
  2. Reasonableness of the rule
  3. Consistent enforcement across all homeowners
  4. Adoption according to the HOA's governing bylaws

If any of these four conditions aren’t met, it can lead to the possibility of an unenforceable HOA rule, which can cause unnecessary strife for HOA board members and other homeowners. 

Let's unpack these four standards by discussing what they look like when they're not followed appropriately in the next section. 

Unenforceable HOA Rules

Above all, HOA members should keep the community at the forefront of their duties. A HOA's top priority is to foster a harmonious neighborhood that protects every resident's and property's safety, where all homeowners can enjoy their own space, the company of their neighbors, and shared amenities without conflict. 

Keeping that in mind, HOA boards sometimes should steer clear of a few common pitfalls:

  • Violations of federal or state laws. HOAs cannot implement any rules that violate rights protected by federal or state laws. Homeowners' Second Amendment rights, the right to assemble, and free speech are all protected under federal law and can't be encroached upon by HOA regulations. An HOA cannot prevent a homeowner from mounting a satellite or TV antenna (according to FCC OTARD regulations) or installing solar panels, even though those things may not be aesthetically pleasing to some neighborhood residents. While certain federal protections apply across the nation, laws can vary greatly by state. HOAs should always consult with legal experts when a question of law violation occurs. 
  • Discriminatory rules. Rules curtailing the expression of race or religion or those in conflict with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) are also unenforceable. For example, if holiday decorations are allowed on homeowner's lawns, then a Halloween display or birthday decorations are as acceptable as a Nativity scene at Christmastime or a Menorah for Hanukkah. 
  • Inconsistent enforcement. HOAs cannot enforce rules haphazardly as they please for both community harmony and legal reasons. Regulations must be consistently enforced for all members to ensure fairness and avoid legal entanglements or accusations of discrimination. 
  • Rules enacted without proper adoption procedures. Finally, the HOA can't create new rules simply because it can. According to the community agreements and bylaws, HOA rules and regulations must undergo proper adoption procedures before they are enforceable. Homeowners can't wake up one morning with a notice of a violation for something that wasn't a rule yesterday. The community has agreed-upon standards of rule adoption and likely voting procedures that must be undergone before a new rule can be adopted and enforced. 

Regulations regarding association rules can, of course, vary from location to location. As with any potentially delicate legal matter, be sure to get the advice of a professional, be it a legal expert or a community association manager, when in doubt about a certain rule and whether you can enforce it. 

Unenforceable HOA Rules FAQ

When enforcing or creating community guidelines, the board must create reasonable rules and avoid imposing arbitrary or unrealistic restrictions on residents. HOA board regulations must maintain strict adherence to federal and state laws and enforce these rules consistently to maintain their credibility within the community and legal responsibilities. 

How can the board distinguish between enforceable and unenforceable HOA Rules? 

As a guideline for creating and enforcing HOA rules, the board should ensure that all HOA policies comply with state and federal laws, adhere to the HOA's governing documents, demonstrate reasonableness, and you maintain consistent enforcement across homeowners.

How can HOA Boards Enforce Rules?

While sometimes accompanied by tricky neighborhood politics, HOA boards can enforce rules by sending violation notices, imposing fines for noncompliance, restricting access to amenities, and taking legal action if necessary. Remember that for a rule to be enforceable, it must be applied fairly and consistently throughout the neighborhood.

Where do State and Local Laws Come into Play?

As a primary determining factor in HOA rule enforceability, state and local laws cannot be ignored when crafting HOA rules. Remember the four criteria for enforceable rules: in accordance with all laws (including Fair Housing laws), reasonable for all parties involved, consistently enforced, and properly adopted according to HOA bylaws. 

The Easy Way to Know Unenforceable HOA Rules (and Enforce the Ones You Can)

Serving on an HOA board is no easy task, and as a voluntary position, it can often be overwhelming for community members with other professional and family responsibilities. Because of this, many HOA boards choose to invest a portion of shared community funds to hire professional assistance

If your board is looking for a way to hit the easy button, the simplest way to avoid conflict and legal difficulties is to outsource HOA challenges to a professional HOA management company

An HOA management company brings years of experience and expertise to the table, so the HOA doesn't need to stress over accidentally creating unenforceable rules, getting bogged down in legal entanglements, or potentially enforcing rules unfairly throughout the neighborhood. 

By proactively reviewing and updating rules, HOA boards can avoid implementing unenforceable HOA rules, mitigate potential risks such as discrimination claims or legal actions from homeowners, and maintain a neighborhood grounded in respect for individual and community property.

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