The pros and cons of homeowners associations (© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images)

© GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

When you live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners or condominium association, you might not have the final say over the color of your house, the size of your pet or how you decorate for the holidays. If you don't like the association's rules, there's little you can do, short of suing or moving out.

"Most associations work reasonably well most of the time, but there are tons of examples of really troubling rules," says Evan McKenzie, associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the book "Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government."

Among other controversial actions, associations have banned owners from renting out residences and have forbidden inflatable lawn ornaments at Christmas.

HOAs and condo associations are bound by state laws. Florida, Nevada and Virginia have ombudsmen to hear complaints. Other states' governments play a minimal role, McKenzie says.

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Restrictions on house color, pet weight and landscaping are found in an association's covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CCRs. The CCRs are filed with the county clerk and are public record.

HOAs usually have good intentions
Most association rules are well-intended, says David Lupberger, home-improvement expert. You don't want neighbors parking a recreational vehicle in the driveway or painting their home bright purple, he says.

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But not everyone finds the rules reasonable, and disputes have arisen over CCRs that ban exterior holiday lights or allow only white lights. Some associations enforce pet-weight restrictions so zealously that they put dogs on a scale.

Another contentious issue is association amendments that ban home and condo owners from renting out their dwellings. For strapped owners, leasing to tenants could be the difference between foreclosure and keeping the property, McKenzie says.

In California, associations can restrict rentals only if the rules were place before the beginning of this year, says David Feingold, a partner at Ragghianti Freitas LLP, a law firm in San Rafael, Calif.

Repercussions abound
Frustrated? Painting the house pink isn't an option, unless you want to face fines and a lawsuit. The best defense against onerous restrictions is to read the CCRs before buying the dwelling, says Donna DiMaggio Berger, partner at Katzman Garfinkel & Berger, a law firm in Margate, Fla. Then decide if you can live comfortably within the rules.

"If you are looking to buy, and there is a dumb restriction, don't buy there," Berger says. "You can't move into a community with the restriction and think it won't apply to you."