If you are moving into a home or condo with a Home Owners Association (HOA), you are not alone. In the U.S. 58% of homeowners live in HOA communities, according to the Community Associations Institute. Many people don’t give their HOA much thought until there is a problem. Since HOAs make and enforce the community rules, it’s smart to understand what you can do if you can’t or don’t want to follow them.

HOA Facts

An HOA consists of a volunteer group of neighbors who manage common areas and community property, creates its own covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). These CC&Rs cover resident behavior, architecture, and common responsibilities.

About 288,000 people live in HOA communities in Hawaii, but expect that number to rise. There are 40 million housing units in HOA nationwide, and an average of 22 new associations forming every day.

HOA Fees

Homeowners can generally expect to pay $300 to $900 in HOA fees on condos under a million dollars in Hawaii, but the fees depend on the complex or development and its common expenses. There are some benefits along with those fees, including overall property maintenance and upkeep. Some utilities like cable, internet and electric can also be covered.

When You Don’t Like the Rules

While rules should be well thought out with participation from the HOA board, a few do slip by from time to time that need to be modified, changed or deleted. Here a couple of examples. In 2014, a Myrtle Beach association decided homeowners could have only two pets. A couple who’d had three dogs for the past 14 years were threatened with a $100 a day fine unless they got rid of one of their dogs.

There was also a story a few years ago that made national headlines, about a homeowner in an upscale gated community in Frisco, Texas, who was threatened with fines for parking his new Ford F-150 series truck in his driveway overnight. The board made exceptions for several luxury brands, but his mid-range truck was ruled “not classy enough.”

Even if you disagree with the rules, keep paying your dues. HOAs have broad legal powers to collect fines and fees and regulate activities. If you don’t respond to letters from the board, property manager, or a collection agency, the HOA can and will turn to small claims court or file a lien against your property.

You can handle some issues with a phone call. For example, adding recycling to the garbage collection route is a budget, not a rules, issue. Call the board member who oversees trash collection to find out if there’s leeway in the budget. If you want to do something that’s against the rules — like flying the American flag in your yard — start by:

  • Making a written request for variance, using the appropriate HOA form in your CC&R documents. A variance gives you permission to be the exception to the rule. Submit your request to the board.
  • Seeking a compromise: That you’d like to fly the American flag, but only on national holidays.

Don’t Expect a Quick Solution

Some HOA boards meet only a few times a year. If the board decides the issue is worth pursuing, it may require a community vote. If it passes a majority, the board will adopt it. Board members also may consult the HOA attorney to see if there’s a legal liability if they rule against you.

If you don’t get a timely response, request a hearing and resubmit your request for variance with as much support for your cause as possible.

Keep in mind the board may be looking at many other requests, and may have higher priorities before yours. Or, they may have addressed a similar issue in the past and don’t want to revisit it. Point being, there are many reasons why your issue may not make a meeting agenda.

Unless an issue is making a serious impact on your quality of life, you may need to decide whether to continue pursuing it with the HOA board, or put it off for another time.

Fine Reality

Going back to the flag flying example, if it is against the rules and you fly it without permission, you may be fined. Fines can range from a nominal fee, such as $25 to a painful $100 or more depending on the issue. Your CC&Rs should indicate the fine schedule — per day, per incident, etc. Interest for nonpayment can accrue, and the HOA can sue you in small claims court.

If you feel the ruling or the fines are unjust, the last resort is to hire an attorney and sue the HOA, as a flag-flying couple did in 1999. They battled their HOA in court for nine years before the case was settled in their favor.

Help the process

Volunteer for a committee or task and get better acquainted with how an HOA board operate and how rules are made. It is helpful to understand how the annual budget is set, including all the constraints and considerations.