With the second wave of COVID-19 sweeping the nation, Americans are once again stuck inside their homes. Some have sought home repair and improvement to keep busy. What do you do if you live in (or govern) an HOA? What kinds of issues arise when applying for and responding to home improvement requests?

HOA Approval

Since HOAs have the power to control the aesthetic standards of the community, a homeowner wanting to start a new project may be first required to submit an improvement request. For example, your HOA might restrict the exterior of your home to a limited number of colors have restrictions against making additions that change the exterior look of your home. These decisions are not always easy, and some HOAs have committees to review these requests before issuing a “yes” or “no” decision. After initial review and approval, don’t be surprised if your HOA wants to conduct a final review to ensure that you implemented your plans as proposed.

You can imagine that this process has the potential to cause disagreements between homeowners and the HOA. As in all disputes, it’s important to remember that communication is a two-way street. When a home improvement request turns into an ugly dispute, both the requesting party and the HOA governing body should review their interactions. While HOAs are often thought of to be full of tricky red tape, a few ground rules can help avoid unnecessary conflict.

Put It In Writing—Always

So how do you make a home improvement request? Well, the process varies state to state, community to community. Best practices direct HOAs to include a clear request process in their governing documents. Having these written steps can help HOA boards and managers avoid claims of unfair treatment. For example, HOA boards are required to enforce restrictions in a fair and reasonable manner. Approving a deck for one homeowner but ignoring their neighbor’s request can result in complaints or even legal action.

After a request is submitted, the board, committee, or decision-maker reviews the plans. Boards should include a response time in its written request process. They should also require the request to be submitted in writing and return a decision in writing. Further, keeping written records of communications between homeowners and HOA leadership is critical. While documents and emails can be occasionally missed, a written record is the best way to prevent unnecessary community disputes.

State and Federal Rules

HOA governing bodies must be wary of legal standards that impact their decision-making. When making a determination on a home improvement proposal, HOA boards should consult their legal professional to ensure compliance with all local, state, and federal laws. The most prominent federal laws that apply to home improvement requests are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). These laws require “reasonable modifications,” which are defined as “structural change[s] made to existing premises, occupied or to be occupied by a person with a disability, in order to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.” For example, permitting an individual with a disability to access their home with a ramp would be a reasonable modification permitted under the FHA. Even if this conflicts with the HOA’s covenants and restrictions, the FHA would require the HOA board to permit the modification.

Seek Clarification When Necessary

Some HOA boards don’t require official approval, and some don’t maintain a written approval process. This situation can be challenging. Without any formal guidance, homeowners are left on their own to seek approval—or not. In the most challenging circumstances, a lack of a clear approval process can result in litigation. HOAs have the right to intervene when a homeowner does not comply with the approval process. If homeowners disregard the HOA’s instruction, the HOA can take the homeowner to court to seek an injunction, halting the build. The HOA could also seek monetary damages or attorney’s fees.

For homeowners, the possibility of legal action should spur you to seek clarification on the home improvement request process before beginning construction. Even if the HOA governing documents fail to address the issue, you should send an inquiry email or letter (again, keep your communication in writing!) to the governing body. When you have confirmation that no process exists, you can feel confident that your project will not be interrupted.

Here are a few important best practices regarding home improvement requests:

For HOA Governing Bodies:

  1. Put your approval process in writing and include it in your governing documents.
  2. Include your step-by-step response and a timeline for approval in your written process.
  3. Apply approvals and denials fairly among all community members.
  4. As always, seek advice from your legal professional before denying modifications for persons with disabilities.
  5. Keep a written record of ALL communication between the governing body and the homeowner.

For Homeowners:

  1. Look to the governing documents first. Many HOAs include a written procedure in their covenants and restrictions.
  2. When the approval process is unclear or absent from governing documents, seek clarification in writing from the HOA board or property manager BEFORE starting any work.
  3. Keep a written record of ALL communication between the governing body and the homeowner.