The Designing of HOA Design Guidelines

One of the loudest arguments one often hears against, and in favor of, living in a Homeowners Association (HOA), is the architectural and landscaping restrictions on one’s own home. 

On one hand, there are individuals who appreciate the architectural or visual harmony, consistent color scheme, individual and common area landscape upkeep, and the absence of “unusual, radical, curious, odd, bizarre, peculiar or irregular modifications or improvements,” as stated by some HOAs’ rules. After all, such rules are what sometimes cause buyers to turn to their real estate agent and say, “This is a nice neighborhood!”

On the other hand, there are individuals who either do not understand or purposely refuse to comply with these rules and standards, as they do not believe anyone can tell them what they can and can’t do with their own home, especially those of us residing in Texas. No doubt, these are some of the same individuals who, when house hunting said, “this is a nice neighborhood”, and were also made aware the property belonged in an HOA prior to finalizing their purchase.

In both cases—and for obvious reasons—it is critical HOAs have well-written architectural and landscaping rules and standards in place. Such rules and standards are commonly referred to as “Design Guidelines”. The Design Guidelines are occasionally drafted and typically enforced by and through the HOA’s Architectural Control Committee (ACC). At minimum, Design Guidelines should address the following areas:

Architectural Standards

HOA communities are often created by one or more professional home building companies who build and advertise homes with a common theme in architecture, colors, and materials. After purchase, homeowners often desire to enhance the look of their home or find it necessary to add, replace, or repair certain aspects of their home. This might include replacing roofs and windows, refreshing the exterior paint, or adding a front porch extension with cover. Design Guidelines should prescribe standards for materials (for example, requiring 30-year shingles within a specific color range) and list pre-approved exterior paint colors. Other important considerations may include, but are not limited to, fence material, height, and stain/paint color; backyard shed height and maximum square footage; and property line setbacks related to swimming pools and other structures. 

Landscape Guidelines

As with architectural standards, an HOA should consider required, permissible, and prohibited landscape materials, colors, and themes to preserve the “visual harmony” of the community. For example, Design Guidelines should state what types of grass may be grown (there are quite a few varieties that exist), what constitutes an overgrown lawn, whether artificial turf is permitted, flower bed height and materials, percentage of original front yard that can be paved over (you don’t want your neighbor turning their front yard into a parking lot), and types and location of plants and trees. 

Other Aesthetic Standards

Other considerations do not always fall within the architectural or landscape realms. Nonetheless, these considerations should be addressed in the Design Guidelines or other governing documents of the HOA. For example, the time period in which garbage and recycling bins may be placed outside for pickup, whether air conditioning units need to be screened from view, location where “Happy Birthday” and other announcement signs may be displayed, or even the maximum number of lumens (brightness) porch lightbulbs may be.

Architectural Review Process, Appeals, Variances, and Fines

Design Guidelines cand also include an overview of the review process used by the ACC to consider requests for improvements. This process should be applied consistently to all homeowner requests and should require a standard application and submission of plans. Decisions to approve or deny should be based on the language of the Declaration, Design Guidelines, and the rationale for denials should be stated. In Texas, there is a statutory right to appeal the ACC’s denial of an application to the HOA Board.

That said, Design Guidelines may also provide the ACC some room to grant a variance from the prescribed rules and standards when doing so does not conflict with the common scheme of the community. Likewise, variances should be appropriately considered, and reasoning provided in the approval, as it aids the process when the next request for a variance is approved or denied.

Design Guidelines can also reference the HOA’s other governing documents that provide the HOA board the power—if authorized—to assess fines for violations of the Design Guidelines. Fines may be levied as a deterrent and to encourage homeowners to comply with the rules, and discourage the “unusual, radical, curious, odd, bizarre, peculiar or irregular modifications or improvements” or landscaping within the community. Fines help further provide the community the recognition of being a “nice neighborhood” for years to come.

Legal Considerations

When drafting Design Guidelines, it is important for HOAs to consider the legal implications of certain rules. For example, Texas legislation regulates restrictions on certain items such as the display of religious items, the installation of solar energy devices, the display of flags and installation of flagpoles, and who is prohibited from being on the ACC. Therefore, it is important for HOAs to consult with legal counsel familiar with the nuances of this legislation and ACC authority, governance and rules, including Design Guidelines.

Parrish Nicholls is an Associate with Henry Oddo Austin & Fletcher, P.C., with a focus on Property Owners Association law. This article is made available by the attorney and/or law firm publisher for educational purposes only as well as to give you general information and a general understanding of the law; it is not being made available to provide specific legal advice. By using this website and/or article, you understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the law firm publisher or attorney author. This website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.


Jul 01, 2024
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Parrish S. Nicholls
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