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A guide to holiday decorating that will keep you off your HOA’s naughty list

Check your association’s bylaws before making your home festive

Many community associations have bylaws that regulate lights, trim and decorative displays. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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The holidays are here, and many of the 74.1 million Americans who reside in community association neighborhoods are preparing to decorate their homes. These homeowners should be aware that many community associations have bylaws that regulate lights, trim and decorative displays. The most common association rules that regulate holiday decorations address:

  • Time. Many homeowners associations (HOAs) regulate the hours that lights may be illuminated and dates on which decorations can be displayed before and after a holiday.
  • Location. Most community association rules limit placement. In neighborhoods of single-family houses, decorations are generally permitted on the exterior of the home and must be kept within the boundaries of the yard. Owners should ensure decorations do not blow into a neighbor’s yard. In attached condominiums, many associations limit or preclude holiday decorations in common areas such as hallways and doors. Most condominium bylaws contain a restriction that prohibits an owner from making a modification to the exterior of a unit without permission from the association.
  • Nuisance. Bylaws typically preclude homeowners from creating a “nuisance.” While this definition is somewhat subjective, it could include holiday lights that are too bright or Christmas music that is played loudly throughout the night. In most cases, common sense dictates what may be disruptive to neighbors.
  • Safety. Most bylaws or rules aim to prevent dangerous or hazardous activities. If your holiday display creates a fire hazard or attracts numerous visitors who park in the street and block access for emergency vehicles, you may run into issues with your association or the local municipality.

HOA rules are intended to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community; complying with the restrictions is mandatory. Homeowners who fail to do so may initially receive a warning from the association, but continued noncompliance could result in fines or a court injunction to have the decorations removed.

Homeowners who have an issue with the holiday-decorations rules should request a meeting with the board to ask if they can be revised. Board members should be receptive to reasonable input from owners and craft rules accordingly; most owners don’t want an Ebenezer Scrooge on the board.

Fair Housing Act implications may make some holiday rules unenforceable. Religious discrimination is illegal under the act. An HOA is not allowed to show preference to one religion over another. When drafting rules, associations should be careful to avoid using terms that refer to specific holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Rather, the rules should apply to all “holiday decorations” or reference “holiday trees” to ensure the religious beliefs of certain owners are not given preferential treatment.

Before decorating your home, review the community association rules to determine what restrictions, if any, exist that would regulate holiday displays. It’s a good idea to contact the community manager or the board of directors for guidance. While the holidays are a time to celebrate, owners who fail to review their association’s rules may end up with coal in their stockings.

For additional guidance, review Community Associations Institute’s guide to holiday and religious displays.

Kevin M. Hirzel is a fellow in Community Associations Institute’s College of Community Association Lawyers and the managing member of Hirzel Law, PLC in Michigan. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining legal counsel. Send questions to government@caionline.org.

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