Violation letters are about as pleasing as a December credit card bill. Regardless of whether an owner was expecting a violation letter or not, it tends to strike a nerve.
These letters are sent to owners who have allegedly broken an association rule, but it’s important to remember that violation letters aren’t meant to punish or shame owners. Their goal is to help ensure rules and regulations are respected and followed.
The reason HOA rules and regulations exist in the first place is to preserve the value, cleanliness and safety of the community. Rules establish expectations and clearly define what is and is not allowed. While most owners won’t agree with every single rule, most make a conscious effort to follow them. Paying dues on time, bringing in garbage cans, and keeping noise to a minimum after 11 pm, are all good examples of obeying HOA rules.
Most HOAs will issue a warning letter for first offences
On occasion, an owner may make an honest mistake. If the action goes against the governing documents, the board or property manager may issue the owner a warning letter. But don’t stress out about this. Some of the most common HOA violations include noise, landscaping, smoking and pets. No one is perfect, and these types of mistakes occur all of the time.
A warning letter, which can be delivered electronically or by traditional mail (depending on whether the HOA can send these types of documents electronically), is meant to be a gentle reminder. It will detail what rule was broken, what will happen if the unsanctioned behaviour/action is not corrected, as well as a due date by which the issue must be resolved. Often, issues do not escalate beyond this point. The reason a board can’t simply look the other way for first offences is that if the problem persists, it needs to have proof that the owner was given adequate notice and information to take corrective measures when the board first became aware of the issue.
Violations must be handled in a strategic manner. Some state laws regulate the HOA’s enforcement process, while other states permit the association’s declaration to govern the time and method of violation notices.
If the process is not followed exactly, the board may find itself in a difficult position. Should a case ever end up in court, a judge will question why the board did not follow proper procedure, and may decide that the owner does not have to pay any fees or fines owed to the association.
Steps to take if a violation letter is issued
After one or two warning letters, an owner who is believed to have broken the same rule more than once is usually given a formal violation letter. An owner may agree with the violation letter and take corrective measures without much fuss, or they may disagree that they did anything wrong. Either way, don’t ignore it. Instead, follow the process available to you. Below is a guideline to give you a better idea of how to respond to a violation letter, but make sure to follow the instructions laid out in your governing documents or in the violation letter.
1. Before you do anything, read the letter carefully
Take the time to digest all of the information in the letter. Get the details about why the violation letter was issued, what is expected of you, and when actions must be taken. If you disagree that you broke a rule, that’s okay, but make sure you know why the HOA has sent the letter. Owners should keep all written letters they receive from the HOA for evidence. If the letter fails to cite a specific rule that applies to the HOA, then you likely have a strong case. Associations cannot enforce rules that don’t exist.
2. Take a bit of time to cool off
Receiving a violation letter can make anyone feel angry, especially if you know something was unfairly reported by a neighbour or you have a good reason why a violation was committed. Resist the urge to confront the board, violation committee or neighbouring HOA members. Instead, take an hour or two to get your frustrations out. HOAs must give owners a reasonable amount of time to respond, so don’t feel obligated to take action right away.
3. Respond to the letter
If you understand the letter and agree with it, you can respond to it in writing. Let the sender know you’ve read the letter and intend to take the proper actions to remedy the situation within the allotted amount of time. If the HOA is using an electronic platform to deliver letters, you can send a response the same way. If not, consider whether you should send the response by certified mail, with a return receipt requested, to prove that you did respond.
If you are caught off guard by the letter, or outright disagree with it, this is your chance to ask questions, share your side of the story, or even provide evidence to support your case. You can usually get help from your property manager.
Keep in mind that most HOAs also allow owners to state their case at a formal hearing, conducted before the HOA board.
4. Attend your scheduled hearing
Generally, there is an advance notification requirement that HOAs must follow when alerting owners about their hearing. This is so they have enough time to properly prepare for the hearing. This formal process allows owners to create a case as to why they should not have been issued a violation. If successful, the owner would not be required to take corrective actions, pay fines, etc.
Owners should take this opportunity seriously and get organized ahead of time. While the board will consider all cases, they cannot devote hours and hours to each owner. Since there is a time limit, make sure your argument is succinct and relevant.
Once the hearing is held, the board is required to make a decision about whether a violation was committed, and document the decision in writing. The decision must be made within the timeframe laid out in the CC&Rs. If the board finds that the owner did break a rule, it can impose a fine for non-compliance if the owner fails to remedy the violation.
If the owner still feels strongly that they did not break a rule, they may have appeal rights. This is determined by either state law, or by the association’s documents.
As a last resort, the owner and HOA may try to reach an agreement through arbitration, mediation, or court. These processes can be expensive and time-consuming, and should be reserved for very serious disputes.
No one really likes violation letters, but they are an essential part of the rule enforcement process. They work to remind owners of the rules, and discourage others from repeating the same unsanctioned actions or behaviour. When issued consistently and fairly, violation letters may actually help to reduce problems for the HOA. That being said, That being said, there are instances where owners should challenge violations. If you need to dispute a violation, make sure that you follow the process, keep all letters and documents pertaining to the issue, and stick to the facts.