You’re a board member of a lovely homeowner’s association. On most days as you drive through your community you wave at fellow neighbors, share a friendly smile with passersby, and enjoy the neat landscapes and well-kept houses. This particular day seems to be no different. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. You appreciate the peaceful feeling and aesthetically pleasing views you’re coming home to after a long day at work.
But then there’s a fluttering of feathers from the treetops as you turn the corner onto your street. There, at the end of the street, staring back at you is a purple monster of a house. PURPLE. You’re pretty sure it was gray when you left…how did it get to be PURPLE?
That’s can’t be the color the board approved…or is it? You aren’t sure. As you pull into your driveway next door to the purple monster you groan under your breath as your neighbors come out to “greet” you and the first thing out of their mouths is “we aren’t going to have to stare at that every time we come home, are we?” You assure them there must be a mistake and will investigate at the next board meeting. But secretly, you’re wondering if anything can be done...
If you live in a homeowner’s association there’s most likely an architectural review process in place that goes through a committee and/or the board, to make sure scenarios like this one don’t happen – and if there isn’t any criteria or process in place there should be!
It may be called something different in your HOA – architectural review committee, architectural control committee, architectural & landscape review committee, design review committee – (we’ll use the former in this article) but they all essentially have the same purpose to ensure compliance with aesthetic standards established by the Association. In other words, making sure the HOA guidelines are being followed to keep the community looking cohesive, preserve property values, and to make sure committee members make consistent decisions in the future.
So, what are some common architectural changes that need approval? Note that it is specific to each association, but some examples include:
- Painting the exterior or trim of your home
- Redesigning or installing landscaping
- Constructing a fence
- Adding a secondary structure
- Installing solar panels or satellite antennae
The architectural review process generally looks something like this:
- Member fills out the application
- The application is reviewed by the architectural review committee (ARC) or Board
- The ARC and/or Board either approves or denies the request, based on the guidelines set by the HOA stated in the governing documents
Seems simple enough, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for members to do whatever they want and either omit the process completely or start their new project without approval from the association – and you’re left with a giant purple house at the end of the street or staring at a giant batting cage in someone’s backyard (yes, that has happened!).
If members choose to not follow the rules, what can the board do?
Go straight to the source. Talk to the owner about the issue at hand. Maybe there was just a misunderstanding or miscommunication during the process. It can get dicey when the home is a rental, in which case it’s the responsibility of the homeowner to inform the tenants of the HOA rules, or else they are ultimately responsible.
Start by sending communications. It’s always good to document in writing, so send the owner a letter explaining how they’ve violated the rules and inform them they need to go through the proper protocol before making any further progress on architectural changes. The letter should include the date of the violation, a description of the violation, how the violation can be resolved, and a reminder of the repercussions the homeowner will face if the rule continues to be violated. The letter should also contain a copy of the rule that has been violated.
Send fine letters. If you find the owner simply decided to do whatever they wanted and chooses to not go through the proper channels they agreed to when moving into the association, then it’s time to take further action and fine them for violating the rules.
Board hearing. The homeowner does have the right to have a hearing with the Board to try and rectify the situation. If a homeowner presents a good case against the fine, the Board could decide to waive the fine. In either case, the Board should give the homeowner the opportunity to address the architectural violation.
Lawsuit. Hopefully it doesn’t come to this, but if in fact the owner isn’t playing nice and refuses to address the violation of the architectural guidelines stated in the governing documents, it could ultimately lead to a lawsuit, which is too much time and money for everyone involved.
What happens when the homeowner did go through the proper channels?
Remember the purple house? After some investigation, turns out the homeowner did get the proper approval from the ARC. They even brought the paint swatches they were considering, which looked gray. The problem with gray is that it’s a hard color to work with. Depending on lighting and the size of the area, it can take on a blue – or in this case purple - hue. But it looked gray to the ARC and homeowner, so the color was approved.
At this point, since the homeowner followed the architectural review process and got the proper approval there isn’t much that can be done – at least nothing the board can mandate be done. The homeowner could repaint the house at their own expense, but since they went through all the right channels, they may just decide to deal and so neighbors will have to as well.
To avoid bright purple houses – or batting cages or any other un-aesthetically pleasing elements being added to your HOA community, make sure there is an architectural review process in place and that members know what it is! This will probably require them to read the CC&Rs and if they still decide to do whatever they want, well, now you know what to do!