February 5, 2015
A property association’s board of directors has the controversial power to issue and enforce fines against its members for rule violations. When an owner receives a threatening notice from the association, it is not always clear what options are available other than to simply obey the demand. This blog post summarizes the process of association rule enforcement and homeowner rights to protect their interests.
When an investor creates a new condominium, townhouse or detached single family home development, he usually makes them subject to covenants to be enforced by an association. The investor files covenants in the county land records, placing all future purchasers on notice that owners of homes in the development are subject to the covenants, bylaws, rules and regulations of the association. Virginia courts interpret the legal relationship between the association and the owner like a contract. There is a hierarchy of authorities defining the respective rights of the associations and owners:
- State Law. An Association must follow the Condominium Act or the Property Owners Association Act. The covenants, rules and regulations may not contradict state law except where those statutes may allow variance from their provisions.
- Association Instruments Recorded in Land Records. This means declarations, covenants, bylaws, amendments, etc. These documents control the governance of the association and its powers to adopt rules and fine owners.
- Resolutions, Rules and Regulations. State law and the covenants and bylaws set out the association’s powers to adopt rules. The rules and regulations are subject to both state law and also the recorded covenants and bylaws. The power to adopt and enforce rules is held by the board of directors, who answer (at least on paper) to the owners in exercise of their own voting rights. Sometimes it can be difficult for an owner to determine which documents are formally adopted rules and which are “policy documents” published by some individual with the intent that the owners follow them but that don’t carry the authority of a formal rule. This is why the minutes and resolutions of the board are important.
The laws, land records and resolutions are all separate, sometimes contradictory documents that speak to an association’s board of director’s authority to fine owners. The board’s notices of an alleged rule violation can be confusing. When threatened with a fine, what strategies are effective for a homeowner to protect her rights? The facts and circumstances of each case are different, but three strategies may be applied in a variety of situations:
- Keep Property Records. A homeowner should maintain files (either in a paper filing system or on a computer) of documents from the purchase of the home and all association documents such as covenants, rules, regulations, resolutions or correspondence from the property manager or board members. In the event of a dispute, these files may be necessary to support the homeowner’s position. Also keep records of all estimates, contracts, purchase orders, invoices, payments for all repairs and maintenance to the property. In general, homeowners who keep good files tend to have fewer legal disputes and resolve them more easily and favorably than those who don’t.
- Build Rapport with Neighbors. Whenever possible, have as good relations with one’s neighbors as possible given the personalities involved. Amicable relationships create mutually beneficial alliances (This does not necessarily require being BFF’s). However, association representatives may try to convince a homeowner that they are letting their neighbors down by not obeying a violation notice. However, a friendly relationship with others subject to the same covenants and rules can serve as a reminder that one’s neighbors usually are not crazy about the rules enforcement either.
- Promptly and Politely Assert Rights. Upon receipt of a notice of rule violation, many homeowners are often tempted to ignore it. If it is not reasonable or easy to understand, is it really a threat? Unfortunately, notices are usually followed by a notice for a hearing where a fine may be determined. The owner is entitled to be present at this hearing and be represented by an attorney, if desired. After that, the association may attempt record a lien in land records, file a lawsuit at the courthouse, or both. A homeowner’s rights are easier to defend earlier in the process than after something adverse happens. board directors or property managers may tell an owner that they must comply with the notice of rule violation in order to “protect the property values” in the Association. However, home buyers rarely ever compare the rules and regulations with the appearances of the homes when they are conducting their home buying process. An association covenant that a home is encumbered with does not improve its value. In fact, it represents a future liability in the form of monthly assessments.
If you are a homeowner and you are unsure whether your association is properly conducting its rule enforcement proceeding against you, promptly contact a qualified attorney to protect your rights.