One of the drawbacks to owning a home that’s part of a homeowners association is that violating its rules can be expensive. Failing to maintain your home’s appearance, follow parking rules, or get permission for renovations can result in some hefty fines.
Since you can’t opt out of an HOA, you may think there’s nothing you can do about fines you think are unfair or even illegal. But understanding how HOAs work, and how to fight HOA violations, can help you challenge those fines and win.
- Unpaid fines, maintenance issues, and unpermitted changes are common HOA disputes.
- It’s important to review your HOA rules and to determine if the violation is enforceable and worth disputing.
- Start by working within your HOA’s rules before you consider mediation, arbitration, or a lawsuit to settle the matter.
HOAs establish and enforce standards designed to protect members’ home values. They also collect dues from members to pay for and maintain community features, such as swimming pools, exercise equipment, parking garages, community rooms, trails, and park areas.
When its members violate the rules, the HOA has the power to penalize or fine them.
Such disputes happen more often than you might think, says Mitchel Ashley, an attorney and owner of the Ashley Law Firm in New York City.
“Conflicts over the application of the community’s regulations or the calculation of dues and fees can lead to HOA conflicts,” he says. “These disagreements might range from simple misunderstandings to more significant contract violations.”
HOAs are known for handing out fines if a member violates its rules. These fines typically range from $25 to $100 and up, depending on what the HOA’s governing documents outline. If you don’t pay the fine, your HOA may charge late fees that can add up to the point where it could place a lien on your property — and potentially foreclose on it.
If you own a home with an HOA, you usually are responsible for taking care of the appearance of your house or unit. For example, you agree to take out the trash, mow your lawn, and paint your house when needed to prevent it from looking run-down. If your house starts to look unkempt — potentially damaging the curb appeal of the entire neighborhood — the HOA may step in.
Disputes often arise over how well a homeowner maintains their property, Ashley says.
“For instance, if you don’t mow your lawn often enough and your yard is overgrown, that can be a violation of the HOA rules,” he says.
HOAs usually have guidelines for making changes or improvements to properties. You may need permission to do those things, especially if they deviate from the norm for your building or neighborhood.
This may leave you wondering what to do when the HOA denies your request. But making a change to your property without a permit, or failing to request permission from the HOA in the first place, easily can lead to warning letters and fines.
“Many HOAs have specific rules about how many windows must be in place or how much windowless space there can be on the outside of your property,” Ashley says. “I know of an example where people were forced to put four windows in their garage just to comply with HOA standards.”
HOAs sometimes limit how many vehicles can be parked in your driveway, or set rules or schedules for street parking. If you live in a community with limited parking space, there may be regulations about where, when, and how long your guests may park on the property.
Disputes can arise if homeowners either forget or disregard the rules around the number or types of pets allowed. Complaints can also occur if certain homeowners repeatedly leave their pets unleashed or fail to clean up after them. Dogs that bark excessively or display overly aggressive behavior can trigger complaints from neighbors as well.
If your HOA fines you, don’t ignore it. Instead, take time to understand the fine, consult your HOA’s rules, and decide whether to pay the fine or if it’s worth an appeal.
Take some time to read through your HOA’s governing documents. Understanding the rules and guidelines will help you determine whether you’re justified in challenging your fine.
It’s possible the rule you’re violating is unenforceable if it failed to earn a majority vote under HOA rules or was in some other way improperly implemented. Reading the rules will help you understand if that’s the case.
Document your case
If you think that the HOA has fined you incorrectly, it helps to gather evidence. Try to give your HOA a well-documented record that includes photographs, emails, or letters reinforcing your argument that the fine is unwarranted.
Evaluate the legality of the claim
HOA rules need to be enforced fairly and uniformly throughout the community. If they are applied only in certain circumstances, or only against certain people, the HOA may be violating the Fair Housing Act or homeowners’ constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
Additionally, there are laws that prohibit HOA rules against certain types of installations, such as satellite TV dishes, solar panels, specific types of landscaping, or charging stations for electric vehicles.
Laws vary by state, so it’s a good idea to do some research on what HOAs are allowed to regulate in your jurisdiction.
Once you’ve compiled your evidence and read through the HOA’s rules, you should consider the cost of pursuing your dispute.
“The fines for noncompliance with HOA rules can sometimes be hefty, and are rarely waived,” says Claudia Cobreiro, a Miami-based attorney and founder of Cobreiro Law.
Your efforts to have the fines reduced or waived could end up having the opposite effect.
“If and when the HOA passes on your file to the association attorney, you could be responsible for the initial fee and the attorney’s bill,” Cobreiro says.
In some cases, it may be easier and in your best interest to just pay the fines and move on.
“These disagreements may be time-consuming and expensive for everyone involved, so it’s critical to be aware of potential problems and create plans to deal with them quickly and effectively,” Ashley says.
Some HOAs have governing documents that permit them to grant a variance from complying with certain standards. For example, municipal governments often grant a zoning variance to homeowners if the nature of their property and its surroundings justify it. But variances aren’t given based on the personal preferences of the homeowner, so it helps to do your research and present evidence supporting your request.
If you feel that you’ve been incorrectly fined by your HOA, you usually can appeal the decision. You’ll send a letter to the HOA board of directors disputing the fine and providing evidence to back up your claims. It’s a good idea to have a lawyer help you draft this letter.
If an appeal fails to resolve the issue, you may need to escalate your efforts. The type of dispute and individuals involved will determine the response needed to resolve the matter.
Get an attorney to represent you
An attorney can help you strategize your next steps and send letters on your behalf. Look for a lawyer who has experience handling HOA disputes.
“If the matter cannot be settled amicably, you may also need to employ a lawyer to represent you in court,” Ashley says.
Hiring an attorney often is enough to get an HOA to change its mind.
If you are unwilling to pay the fine, and your efforts to appeal the decision fail, Ashley recommends mediation or arbitration.
During mediation, a trained liaison helps both parties find common ground. In arbitration, a neutral third party examines the evidence and decides how to resolve the issue.
Both mediation and arbitration cost money, but they’re usually cheaper than a lawsuit.
If none of the previous efforts work, you can file a lawsuit against your HOA. If your HOA’s actions are discriminatory or prevent you from exercising your rights as a homeowner, then a lawsuit may be worth the effort.
However, the litigation process will be lengthy and expensive, and your efforts may prove unsuccessful. If the dispute falls within the small claims limit, you might consider going to small claims court, but this still can be a difficult and expensive process.
FAQ: How To Fight HOA Fines
Here are answers to common questions about how to fight back against an HOA.
Most people are familiar with what an HOA does, but don’t realize how much power they actually have. HOAs operate under a legal document called a CC&R, which stands for covenants, conditions, and restrictions. This allows them to operate as a governing body and pass rules and regulations for the community, and gives the HOA multiple avenues to correct violations.
There are many benefits to living in a neighborhood with an HOA. It helps keep the community looking nice, which protects property values. And because everyone pays annual HOA dues, these neighborhoods often have amenities such as a pool, walking trail, parking, or tennis courts.
If the HOA is voluntary, then you can opt out and avoid paying the annual fees. You’ll also be choosing not to participate in community areas like the swimming pool or community room. But most HOAs are compulsory, meaning membership — and the obligation to pay dues — is a condition of owning the home.
There are many benefits to living in a neighborhood with an HOA, but even the most well-meaning organizations overstep their boundaries sometimes. If you feel you’ve been unfairly penalized or fined by your HOA, you can push back and may win your dispute. But you should always consider the cost before escalating a conflict with your HOA. It’s also a good idea to consult with an attorney who can help you understand your options.