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Why "Grandfathering" Is Important for HOA Property Policies

The importance of the grandfather clause is to protect homeowners who've done nothing wrong from being penalized when rules or enforcement patterns change.
Katie Vaughan | Apr 12, 2022 | 4 min read

When they buy a home in an HOA, nobody thinks, "I'm going to rack up the property violations. HOA violations are almost always the result of a misunderstanding, oversight, or another communication gap.

Homeowners rarely intend to do something to their houses to violate the rules, and HOAs are partly responsible for informing their members about home design, maintenance, and decor restrictions.

Most of your homeowners will have assessed the procedures when they moved in and have been passively staying within the stylistic lines.

But what happens when you change the rules? For example, let's say your HOA recently voted to disallow large columns on front porches or clotheslines in the backyard. What do you do about the properties that already have columns or clotheslines? Did they vote?

Do you immediately sanction them for home features that have been permitted for years, perhaps decades, of happy community residence?

It's times like these when a "grandfather" clause is essential to happy, healthy member relationships.

What is a Grandfather Clause?

"Grandfathering" something in using a grandfather clause allows for things that were once permitted to remain permitted. For example, your HOA granted a homeowner permission to build a handicap ramp on their front porch. Due to recent policy (or enforcement) changes, that ramp would not be approved - as is - today. But you also can't demand that a handicapped homeowner who went through the ramp approval process now tear down their ramp to conform with the new rules. That would be pointlessly monstrous.

On the other hand, a grandfather clause allows previously approved constructions to stay approved even if matching modifications on other properties are not supported today.

Don't "Change the Locks" on Your Homeowners

The importance of the grandfather clause is to protect homeowners who've done nothing wrong from being penalized when rules or enforcement patterns change. Residents who sought and received permission for their house features years ago did everything correctly and should not be required to make property adjustments afterward.
Changing the rules and then issuing violations for existing property features is like changing the locks on your residents. They're happily in compliance one day, and the next is door tags and fees. Naturally, no one enjoys this, and it's only going to cause strife. So instead, keep an open mind about being flexible yet fair with all your homeowners in the community.

Writing in the Grandfather Clause

The grandfather clause allows you to stay flexible when you update the rules to new stylistic standards for the neighborhood. This way, you don't have to shake down and penalize every homeowner who has a previously - but no longer - permitted structure on their property. All you have to do is write into the new rule that all those with pre-existing structures may keep them so long as those structures are well-maintained and kept attractive to the community.

Alternatives to Grandfathering Disallowed Features

Let's say that your board has just voted clotheslines out of the neighborhood, and you know several new clotheslines are rusting in neighborhood backyards. One option is to spring for their removal. If you change the rules on a matter that most homeowners don't vote on and want to alter the properties of several homeowners in the community, covering the costs is a friendly way to do this. If the worry is about old structures like that rusting clothesline, many homeowners will let you take it, provided it creates no hardship for the family.

For the one family who recently painted, oiled, and hung their laundry on the clotheslines in their backyard, grandfathering was designed for them. They had lawfully used their clotheslines before the new rule so that they would be entitled to grandfathering.

Homeowners who are forced to make changes need options that minimize inconvenience or cost. For example, do you want that clunky 80s-era ramp off the curbside sightline? Split or pay the price of a trendy new ramp for your disabled homeowner instead.

Managing your HOA in a thoughtful and considerate way sometimes requires a few more details in the paperwork. By writing in a grandfather clause, you can eliminate months and thousands of dollars in disputes for every change in the property rules and policies.

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