A Guide to Architectural Control in Homeowners’ Associations

This guide is designed to inform U.S. homeowners of their rights and obligations concerning architectural control covenants and property improvements within homeowners’ associations.

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All Exterior Alterations

Must be approved by the architectural committee prior to the commencement of any project that alters or improves the exterior of the property. 

Laws and Documents Governing Homeowners’ Associations

The ability of a homeowners’ association to regulate certain property details, impose obligations on members, and levy fines is governed by a combination of statutory and case law in the jurisdiction where the association is located and the community's governing documents—including articles of incorporation, bylaws, declarations (also known as CC&Rs—Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions), and rules and regulations, which contractually bind the homeowner association and its members.

(A) State Law

Statutory laws governing homeowner associations vary from state to state, but typically include provisions that impose procedural requirements for community associations to issue fines upon or collect fees from homeowners. State common law (case law) governs the interpretation and enforceability of the terms of the community's governing documents in accordance with the interpretation of contracts.

In California, the Davis-Sterling Common Interest Development Act[1] and California Commercial Code[2] impose statutory requirements and restrictions on associations including:

  • Registration of an association’s articles of incorporation;
  • Requiring that valid and enforceable rules must be:
    1. In writing;
    2. Within the authority of the association according to its own government documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, and declaration);
    3. Not in conflict with the association’s governing documents;
    4. Adopted, amended, or repealed in good faith, and in compliance with California law;
    5. Reasonable.[3]
  • Ownership and transfer of interests;
  • Property uses;
  • Maintenance;
  • Record keeping and inspection;
  • Annual fees and assessments; and
  • Alternative dispute resolution.

This list is not exhaustive and includes just some of the areas concerning associations governed by California law. 

Other states, like New York, do not have laws that are as comprehensive concerning the requirements and restrictions imposed on these private communities. In New York, the Non-for-Profit Corporation Law (NPCL)[4] governs some elements of the establishment and operation of a homeowner's association, providing that:

  • Members may request that elections be supervised by an inspector;
  • Actions may be permitted by written consent of members without a meeting;
  • Actions by a director or officer that constitute a conflict of interest without disclosure may be void or voidable; and
  • Directors and officers may be sued for misconduct.

It is important for homeowners to research and understand the laws in the jurisdiction where their property or prospective property is located, as statutory protections vary from state to state.

(B)  Governing Documents

 A collection of documents govern an association's authority and obligations, as well as the rights and obligations of its member homeowners, including the articles of incorporation, bylaws, declaration (CC&Rs), and rules and regulations.

  • Articles of Incorporation: Include basic information about the association and are filed with the secretary of state in the jurisdiction where it is located to create a non-profit organization.
  • Bylaws: Set forth rules and procedures for how the community will function. These include details regarding the election of the board of directors, voting procedures, term limits, and other details of how the HOA through is board of directors will be run.
  • CC&Rs: The Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) enumerates the rights and responsibilities of the association's board to its members, as well as the rights and responsibilities of members to the association. Generally, they contain restrictions on the use of the property, architectural standards, lawn maintenance standards, etc. These rules are permanent in nature, but can be changed or amended with the consent of the members.
  • Rules and Regulations: Whereas changes to the CC&Rs require the vote of homeowners, rules and regulations of the community can be amended by providing notice to homeowners and conducting a board vote. Rules and regulations cannot contradict the CC&Rs, which take precedence, and cannot be more restrictive than the CC&Rs. The rules and regulations should merely serve to clarify, interpret, and help implement the CC&Rs.

Architectural Standards Authority

 One of the main functions of architectural standards in an community is to help maintain property values. The authority to regulate a homeowner’s right to make improvements or modifications to their property is derived from the governing documents. Specific regulations concerning architectural guidelines are typically found in the rules and regulations. An association may impose additional restrictions than those contained in the CC&Rs, but cannot circumvent CC&R provisions.

Rules concerning architectural standards and guidelines are enforceable based on the contractual relationship between the homeowner association and its members. These rules will be interpreted by a court the same way a contract would be interpreted, varying slightly from state to state. If challenged, a court will examine the plain language of the rule in question and the rules and regulations as a whole, just as it would consider an entire contract when interpreting a particular clause. Typically, the court will impose some type of “reasonableness” standard and generally uphold a rule, unless it is unreasonable, violates public policy, or imposes a burden that far outweighs any benefit.

One gray area of an association's authority is its self-provided power to “interpret” rules. How a challenge to a board’s interpretation will be handled by a court is governed by the case law of each state.   In a California case, Ticor Title Insurance Co. v. Rancho Santa Fe Assn., the court found that the association's interpretation power does not allow its board to enact stricter regulations than the regulations expressly provided in the Covenant.[5]

 Owner's Contractual Obligations

 Architectural standards generally control modifications to the exterior of the property. Generally, a homeowner will be allowed to make improvements and modifications to the interior of the property, so long as it does not alter the property’s structural integrity. Often, issues between HOAs and homeowners arise when a homeowner did not know or understand what was allowed and what was prohibited.

When purchasing a property with restrictive coveants, homeowners should take the following steps:

  • Read and understand the bylaws;
  • Carefully examine the CC&Rs and rules and regulations;
  • Be aware of monthly fees and potential fines, as well as the procedures for imposing fines; and
  • Determine whether the property is a good fit after considering the covenants that run with the property. 

It is important to take these steps because, as discussed above, the CC&Rs and rules and regulations will be interpreted and enforced according to contract law.

 Administration of Architectural Guidelines

 The architectural standards and guidelines are administered by review committee, which is responsible not only for enforcing standards, but reviewing members’ applications for additions or modifications  according to formal procedural rules. These rules should be set forth in the bylaws or CC&Rs and, depending on the jurisdiction, may be subject to statutory guidelines.

 A)    Purpose and Responsibilities of an Architectural Review Committee

The purpose of a review committee is to administer the community's guidelines by overseeing changes and modifications to property through an application and appeal process designed to balance the interests of individual homeowners and the community as a whole, ensuring that guidelines are met and property values are protected. Ultimately, a review committee has a duty to put the interests of the community as a whole above the interests of individual homeowner members.

An architectural review committee is responsible for:

  • Managing the application and approval process;
  • Monitoring the community for violations of standards;
  • Fairly enforcing standards set forth in the governing documents;
  • Making subjective and objective decisions about guideline compliance[6];
  • Making recommendations to the board of directors;
  • Reviewing guidelines for adequacy; and
  • Educating the community about set guidelines.

B)    Architectural Application & Approval Process

 If a homeowner would like to make an exterior change to their property in the form of an addition or modification, they will need to follow the formal process set forth in the governing documents. The review committee will review their proposed changes and determine whether they are consistent with set guidelines.

Requests for architectural variances—changes that would constitute a departure from the stated criteria in the guidelines— will normally not be permitted. However, the governing documents may provide for variances in extraordinary circumstances or cases of severe hardship. Depending on the rules of a particular association, the applications for modifications and variances may be the same form or separate applications, but will generally follow the same process for review.

Typically, the process will consist of[7]:

1. Submitting an application for architectural review committee approval - The application will likely request a description of the property location and details of the proposed project, such as specifications (materials, shapes, professional plans) and work schedule. The application may also request a list of documents to be submitted with the application including copies of architectural plans, permits, and surveys. The application may consist of a printed request form or simply a written letter from the homeowner to the review committee containing the requested information.

2. Committee Review - The review committee should meet regularly to review applications for approval. Pursuant to its operational rules and fiduciary duties to the association, the review committee should review the application for compliance with set guidelines. If the governing documents permit variations in certain circumstances, the architectural review committee will review the plans to determine whether the proposed changes meet the required standard.

3. Decision - A recommendation from the review committee will be sent to the board of directors, which will approve or disapprove the application. The CC&Rs should set forth a time frame within which the review committee and board of directors must render a decision on a homeowner’s application.

C)    A Homeowner’s Rights to Substantive and Procedural Due Process

 A homeowner’s rights to substantive and procedural due process are protected by the governing documents, the fiduciary relationship between the HOA and its members, and the jurisdiction’s statutory laws and case law.

To protect homeowners’ due process rights and ensure fair and balanced enforcement of architectural guidelines, the governing documents should set forth a formal process for enforcing the architectural guidelines and issuing fines. This process will typically begin with a warning letter and should include an opportunity to handle the matter through alternative dispute resolution, if a dispute arises. Fines imposed on homeowners for violations must be issued in accordance with a fine schedule, which must be distributed to all homeowners.

Some states require that certain procedural safeguards be in place to protect homeowners’ rights to due process including a hearing prior to the issuance of a fine and reasonable notice of the date and location of the hearing.

 D)    Fine Authority and Right to Appeal

 In accordance with the governing documents, a board of director’s decision on an architectural review application is usually final, unless it is not supported by any evidence or arbitrary and capricious. A homeowner’s right to appeal and details of the appeal process should be clearly defined in the bylaws or CC&Rs. The appeal is generally made to the board of directors within a certain time (often 30-45 days) after the board of directors (based on the recommendation of the architectural review committee) issues its decision.

In some jurisdictions, the right to appeal and the period of time in which an appeal must be made is statutorily protected. However, in other jurisdictions, the terms of the appeal process are detailed in the governing documents. Generally, a court will require those terms to be reasonable.

For specific information about your rights as a homeowner, contractual obligations, and details of the architectural review application and approval process, refer to the governing documents of your association and the applicable statutory provisions and case law in the jurisdiction where your property or prospective property is located.

References

[1]     The Davis-Sterling Common Interest Development Act (California Civil Code Section 4000 et seq.)

[2]     California Commercial Sections 7110-8910, Nonprofit Mutual Benefit Corporations. 

[3]     California Civil Code Section 4350, Common Interest Developments, Operating Rules. 

[4]     New York Non-for-Profit Corporation Law (NPCL). Guidance available from the New York Office of the Attorney General.

[5]    Ticor Title Insurance Co. v. Rancho Santa Fe Assn. (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 726. 

[6]     Guidelines may contain words that require subjective interpretation or judgment. For instance, the word “tasteful” might be included in rules regarding architectural guidelines and require a subjective determination. Some states have case law that specifically protects an association's ability to apply subjective criteria when evaluating proposed architectural changes and modifications. See Clark v. Rancho Sante Fe Assn. (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 606, 619).

[7]     For specific details concerning the architectural application and review process, homeowners should reference the details and criteria set forth in the governing documents of their community association.