What is an HOA and What Do They Actually Do?

Amy Pawlukiewicz
Written by Amy Pawlukiewicz
Updated June 21, 2022
An array of colorful houses
Photo: Grace Cary / Moment / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Homeowners associations collect fees to maintain the neighborhood community.

  • Some HOAs have elected boards, while others are run by volunteers.

  • Review your HOA’s Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions for specific information.

If you live in a community with a homeowners association (HOA) or have heard of an HOA, you might believe that they have the final word on everything in your neighborhood community. However, an HOA’s power is limited in scope, and there are certain things they can’t enforce. Here are the things your HOA can—and cannot—do.

What is an HOA?

HOA is an acronym that stands for homeowners’ association. It is a self-governing organization within a community that collects fees from residents to maintain common spaces and enforce rules and regulations. There is usually an HOA board of either volunteers or elected individuals who run the organization.

Some HOA make decisions based on votes that the entire community participates in while others vote by proxy, meaning that a few people are designated to vote on behalf of the community, similar to elected officials in government.

How Do HOAs Typically Work?

​​An HOA effectively governs a housing community. Their specific actions can look different depending on the community's needs, but typically the HOA collects fees that fund maintenance and upkeep within the community. They also mediate in cases of neighbor disputes. 

An HOA is likely to have many aesthetic-oriented rules that include but are not limited to yard upkeep, outside decor, home paint color, and driveway parking. Some homeowners' associations even dictate what type of plants you can grow in your yard. In some cases, homeowners associations assert penalties or fines to homeowners who fail to follow the rules established by the HOA.

A homeowner's association has more than guidelines and suggestions; they have bylaws and articles of incorporation. The articles of incorporation allow the HOA to operate as a nonprofit governing body that can pass bylaws, community rules, and regulations. Homeowners will need to review the bylaws in the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, a document that explains the HOA's rules and regulations. Though HOA's have limits on what actions they can take, their bylaws, rules, and regulations are legally binding should you live within their jurisdiction. 

For non-compliance with an HOA mandated rule, you could receive a lien on your home. Unpaid fees or fines can also result in an increase in property tax or, in some cases, foreclosure. The HOA can legally do this due to its status as a small governing body. 

Can You Refuse to Join an HOA or Pay Fines?

Depending on the type of HOA in the community, you may not need to join it.  

Voluntary homeowners associations do not require residents to take part. So a non-member will not be subject to their rules and regulations. However, they still oversee community amenities like pools, clubhouses, and other shared spaces. You likely won't have access to those features without an HOA membership. 

Mandatory homeowners associations do not provide the option of non-membership. Homeowners will automatically join the HOA at signing, which means that they have to adhere to the bylaws and pay dues. A mandatory HOA will not allow new residents to opt out of joining. 

You cannot refuse to pay your fines if you enter into an HOA. When you sign your membership papers, you are legally liable to pay any fines regardless of the type of HOA. Refusal to pay fines can result in legal action from your HOA, including liens and even foreclosure.

What Can HOAs Legally Do?

The rules of an HOA are outlined in a legal document called the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, commonly known as the CC&R. Any rules for your homeowners association have to pass the vote to become a part of the CC&R, and there are certain things that they can legally govern in the community.

Property Maintenance

A residential street with all the houses having a white picket fence
Photo: peterspiro / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

HOAs can set rules about what you can and cannot do with the exterior of your property. They can restrict paint colors, mandate that you paint your house, instruct you to repair items like gutters or peeling paint, and even tell you to mow your lawn regularly.

Pets

A homeowners association can put rules into place regarding pet ownership. These rules can range from whether you’re allowed to keep pets in your home to weight limitations or breed restrictions for dogs. Most HOAs have rules about keeping your pet leashed and picking up after your pet, and some have designated pet relief areas, in the case of condos and townhouses.

Exterior Decorations

Looking forward to putting up an elaborate holiday display with all the fixings? You may want to check your HOA rules first. HOAs can dictate the amount and types of decorations you can put up outside your home, and some have dates during which holiday decor is allowed.

Vehicles

When you move into a community with an HOA, particularly a condo or a townhome community, you will usually have a certain number of parking spaces assigned to you and available for guests. But HOAs also have the power to demand that you remove certain types of vehicles, such as RVs, boats, or even broken down cars, from the property.

Garbage Cans

Your HOA can mandate that you keep your trash cans out of view to maintain the community’s appearance as a whole. They can also mandate that other items, such as coolers or utility meters be kept out of sight.

Enforce Rules and Create New Ones

As long as the board or community votes positively on new rules, the HOA is allowed to put them into effect once they notify community members. They can also enforce regulations by doling out fines, filing a lien on a home for non-payment of dues or fines, and even force a foreclosure if a member of the community does not pay their dues. 

What Can’t HOAs Do?

With all the power that HOAs have, there are still some things that they are not allowed to do.

Discriminate Against Residents

Homeowners associations must adhere to the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination of any kind based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. They cannot discriminate against anyone wanting to purchase a home in the neighborhood, fine members without cause, or prevent individuals from joining the board.

Unclear Fines

To levy fines against a community member, the HOA has to cite what rule or regulation the homeowner is violating. Before moving into a community, you should ask the HOA for a list of fineable offenses. If a fine isn’t listed in the CC&R, you can argue against paying it.

Make Decisions Not in the CC&R

Most importantly, the HOA board cannot enforce rules that aren’t within the guidelines of the CC&R. For example, a member of the HOA board can’t suddenly decide to amend exterior painting guidelines to exclude gray, unless it’s in the rules. If not, the HOA has to vote and add that rule into the guidelines. Basically, board members cannot outlaw things on a whim.

Ask You to Remove Your Satellite Dish

Cable TV rights for homeowners are protected from HOA interference by the Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule, according to the FCC. So even if your HOA wants to add restrictions to the CC&R, they are bound by law from doing so.

Protecting Homeowners’ Rights

If your homeowners association made a decision that you feel is unfair or illegal, you are entitled to protest. You can attend meetings and ask questions, write letters, and even get the law involved if necessary. The true purpose of an HOA is to advocate for the community, so if you feel something is wrong, speak up.