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KC Real Estate Lawyer in Kansas City MO Logo
KC Real Estate Lawyer in Kansas City MO Logo

At first blush, short-term rentals seem like a win-win situation. You can find a nice place to stay for a few nights, and it is frequently cheaper than booking a hotel. Just as importantly, vacation houses and condos rented out through Airbnb or VRBO are often more interesting places to stay, with the individual character and idiosyncrasies you do not get from a cookie-cutter hotel room. It can be a great deal for property owners, too.

In the right location, a property rented for short-term stays can bring in significantly more revenue than with a traditional year-to-year lease. That extra cash can be put toward improving the property, making it into a more attractive destination that can command higher rates. Or, it can just provide supplemental income. Either way, the property owner is coming out ahead.

So far, short-term rentals sound like a great deal for all involved parties. Yet, there has been a growing trend to prohibit them in HOA communities. Is it just a case of power-tripping HOA boards lording their authority over members by banning a potentially lucrative source of secondary income? Actually, no. As is so often the case, there is more to it than that.

For all their virtues, Airbnb, VRBO, and similar services can have genuine downsides for a homeowners’ association. On a smaller scale, it is analogous to the so-called “Lemon Socialism,” where profits are privatized, and risks are socialized. In this case, the advantages of short-term rentals (i.e., increased income) are reaped by individual property owners, while the potential downsides (when they are present, which is not always the case) are borne by the community as a whole.

Why Do HOAs Prohibit Short-Term Rentals?

When an HOA imposes a restriction on homeowners’ use of their properties, it needs to have some justification (or at least a feasible pretense). With short-term rental restrictions, the purpose is generally to protect other members and preserve the character of the community. A quiet, sleepy neighborhood that all-the-sudden has vacationers coming and going on a regular basis stands a good chance of losing its quiet, sleepy nature.

Vacation renters tend to be messier and noisier, especially at night, than permanent residents. The commotion can become a nuisance for people who reside in the community year-round—specifically, other homeowners and their families. Short-term renters also tend to ignore HOA rules or simply not know what the rules are. In a community with common areas and facilities, vacationers can overtax the commons, preventing full-time residents from enjoying the benefits for which their assessments pay. Vacationers do not pay HOA fees and are less vested in the long-term condition of the community.

From a practical standpoint, short-term renters can increase a neighborhood’s traffic and parking problems. And, if travelers regularly use common facilities like a pool or recreation center, the HOA’s insurance rates are likely to increase, as additional use of the facilities by more people inevitably leads to more damage and risk of premises liability claims.

With that said, a lot depends on the nature of an individual community. If the impact from short-term rentals will be minimal—or if the community is in a vacation hotspot where a large percentage of owners like the idea of renting through Airbnb or VRBO—a rental restriction might not make sense for that community.

Authority to Restrict Short-Term Rentals.

Even if a community has a valid reason to restrict short-term rentals, it still needs legal and/or contractual authority to support the restriction. Typically, the authority comes from an HOA’s declaration, from state law, or a combination of the two.

A declaration is a contract among property owners in a community. The owners jointly agree to accept certain obligations and restrictions on how properties in the community can be used. If everyone complies, the community as a whole will benefit—or at least that is the idea.

Throughout the country, courts generally assume HOA restrictions are enforceable as long as a restriction promotes a legitimate purpose and is not forbidden by statute. See, e.g., Saunders v. Thorn Woode Partnership, L.P. 265 Ga. 703, 462 S.E.2d 135 (Ga., 1995); Laguna Royale Owners Assn. v. Darger, 119 Cal.App.3d 670, 174 Cal. Rptr. 136 (Cal. Ct. App. 1981). Even broad restrictions against all rentals have been upheld in some jurisdictions if the restriction is in the HOA’s declaration, and the board can offer a legitimate justification for it. See, Four Brothers Homes at Heartland Condominium II, et al., v. Gerbino, 262 A.D.2d 279, 691 N.Y.S.2d 114 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999).

So, the starting point when deciding if an individual HOA has the authority to ban short-term rentals is to look at the community’s declaration. If the declaration prohibits rentals (short-term or long), then the HOA can likely enforce the prohibition unless there is some other reason why the restriction is unenforceable. Armstrong v. Ledges Homeowners’ Assoc., Inc., 633 S.E.2d 78 (N.C. 2006).

Limitations on Rental Restrictions.

Though state HOA laws can vary considerably from state to state, multiple state legislatures have recognized that the right to rent out a property is valuable enough for homeowners to warrant some statutory protection. In general, state-law limitations on rental restrictions do not say that rental restrictions are per se unenforceable. Instead, the laws seek to protect property owners’ due process rights and avoid a scenario in which an owner is deprived of a valuable property right without adequate notice.

In Arizona, for instance, an HOA cannot enforce a rental restriction against an owner unless the restriction was already in the community’s declaration when the owner acquired title to the property. A.R.S. §33-1260.01A. HOA declarations are public records recorded within county land records, so owners are assumed to have notice of restrictions and covenants in the declaration when accepting the deed to a property. The Arizona law protects owners from being deprived of a right they reasonably anticipated having when deciding to purchase the property.

California law gives potential purchasers of homes in HOA communities the right to receive a written statement of any rental restrictions in a community before title to a property is transferred. Cal. Civ. Code §4525(a)(9). The law recognizes that, while a recorded declaration serves as formal notice to purchasers, buyers do not always read them thoroughly before agreeing to a purchase.

Contractual & Statutory Protections.

The most common state-law approach for protecting owners’ vested property rights is through “grandfather” laws. A grandfathering provision lets an HOA enforce a newly adopted restriction prospectively but protects owners who previously relied on the restriction’s absence.

Grandfathering statutes relating to rental restrictions recognize that a substantial portion of a property’s value can consist of the owner’s ability to generate revenue by renting it out. As such, owners who previously enjoyed that right should not be deprived of it in the future without their consent. In a nutshell, it is unfair to enforce a rental restriction against an owner who purchased a property when the restriction was not in place.

Florida and California laws prevent enforcement of rental restrictions against owners if the restriction was not already in effect at the time of purchase, and the owner did not vote to adopt the restriction. Fla. Stat. §718.110(13), Cal. Civ. Code §4740(a), (b). Similarly, Arizona’s law will not let an HOA enforce a rental restriction against an owner who purchased a property before the restriction’s enactment unless the restriction was approved by a unanimous member vote. A.R.S. §33-1227.

So far, this all seems straight-forward enough, but there is a curveball coming. Under California’s HOA law, existing owners are generally protected against later-adopted HOA rental restrictions. However, HOAs can enforce “reasonable” limitations, if not outright prohibitions. Laguna Royale Owners Assn. v. Darger, 119 Cal.App.3d 670, 174 Cal. Rptr. 136 (Cal. Ct. App. 1981). What that practically means is that an owner protected against rental restrictions, in general, might nonetheless be prevented from engaging in short-term rentals.

California courts have recognized that short-term rentals can negatively affect a community beyond what results from ordinary, long-term rentals. With that in mind, the courts reasoned that a minimum lease period (or similar rule preventing short-term rentals) does not offend California’s grandfathering law because the owner still has the right to rent the property. The right has been limited, but the owner can still rent to a long-term tenant. Watts v. Oak Shores Community Assn., 235 Cal.App.4th 466 (2015), Mission Shores Assn. v. Pheil, 166 Cal.App.4th 789, 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d 108 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008)

But that raises a question: what is so different about short-term rentals compared to long-term rentals?

Residential vs. Commercial Use.

Residential use restrictions are one of the most common restrictions included in HOA declarations, and they have been consistently upheld by reviewing courts throughout the country. Essentially, a declaration says that properties in the community are intended to be used as homes, not as businesses or farms. And, by accepting a deed to a property subject to the HOA, owners covenant that they will not use their properties for commercial (i.e., business-related) purposes.

It is similar to a single-family residential zoning ordinance—just adopted by an HOA instead of a local government. Some HOAs have tried to prohibit short-term rentals, relying on commercial-use restrictions. The argument is that if you are using your property as a short-term rental, you are effectively using it for a commercial purpose.

Before looking at this question further, it is worth emphasizing two points. First, state courts are not consistent in how they have interpreted the issue. Second, a short-term rental prohibition based on a residential-use covenant is distinct from an ordinary rental restriction. If an association can rely on an enforceable restriction prohibiting rentals, it does not need to argue that short-term rentals are a commercial use. The argument generally comes up when an HOA wants to prevent short-term rentals but does not have a rental restriction—or it has a rental restriction that it cannot enforce against a specific homeowner due to (for example) a grandfathering clause.

When considering this issue, an appeals court in Michigan held that an HOA that prohibited short-term rentals based on a commercial-use restriction did not exceed its authority. Eager v. Peasley, 911 N.W.2d 470, (Mich. Ct. App. 2017). Noting that “provid[ing] temporary housing” to vacationers is a “profit-making enterprise,” the court concluded that “the act of renting property to another for short-term use is a commercial use, even if the activity is residential in nature.”

Thus, under the Eager Court’s reasoning, a Michigan HOA with a commercial-use restriction could adopt and enforce a policy against short-term rentals, even if the HOA did not have an express rental restriction in its declaration.

On the other hand, states that afford greater deference to individual homeowners’ property rights have come down the other way. In North Carolina, for example, courts typically interpret unclear restrictions in favor of homeowners. Based on that principle, a North Carolina court held that a generalized restriction against non-residential use by itself was insufficient authority for an HOA to prohibit short-term rentals. Wise v. Harrington Grove Cmty. Ass’n, 584 S.E.2d 731 (2003).

Unsurprisingly, the Texas Supreme Court likewise came down in favor of the property owner in Tarr v. Timberwood Park Owners Ass’n, 61 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1174 (2018). In that case, the HOA relied on a restriction that only allowed properties in the community to be used as single-family residences. According to the Tarr Court, the provision did not plainly forbid short-term rentals because, as long as renters used the home for residential purposes, the covenant was satisfied.

Unfortunately, the question as to whether a residential use provision provides adequate grounds to prohibit short-term rentals is inconsistent from state to state. Accordingly, the most sure-fire way for HOAs to prevent short-term rental of properties within the community is to amend their declarations to unambiguously forbid short-term rentals.

Adopting and Enforcing Short-Term Rental Restrictions.

As we have seen, an HOA cannot just decide one day that it wants to prohibit short-term rentals. The prohibition must be grounded in some authority derived from the community declaration. For the most part, a community with an existing rental restriction in its declaration will have the right to enforce the restriction.

If it doesn’t, the HOA will need to amend its declaration following the amendment process provided under state law and the declaration itself. Usually, the amendment requires the approval of at least a majority of homeowners in the community.

When proposing language for a rental restriction, an HOA board should clearly define what rentals will be prohibited. A common approach is to establish a minimum lease period (such as 30 days), with any rental period below that threshold forbidden. If there will be any exceptions to the general prohibition, they need to be spelled out, too.

To avoid challenges from existing homeowners, it can be a good idea to include a grandfathering clause within a proposed amendment restricting rentals. Remember, multiple states have laws that prohibit enforcement of a rental restriction against a homeowner if the restriction was not in place when they acquired the property—unless the owner consents to the restriction. Even in states without these statutory protections, affected owners can argue that a newly adopted restriction deprives them of a vested property right.

A “grandfather” clause might let an owner currently engaged in short-term rentals continue doing so. Or an amendment could establish a cap on the number of homes in the community that can be used as short-term rentals. Rental restrictions should include an enforcement mechanism that can be used against non-compliant owners. For example, fines might be imposed on violative owners, or access to common facilities could be limited for so long as a violation continues. State HOA laws vary with regard to permissible penalties, so an HOA needs to make sure its enforcement mechanism is statutorily compliant.

When all else fails, an HOA can seek recourse via civil litigation. In that case, the board (on behalf of the HOA) files suit against the non-compliant owner and requests an order from a judge directing the owner to cease short-term rentals. Of course, litigation is often expensive and time-consuming, so it is usually better to resolve things out of court if possible.

Importantly, an HOA should consult with an experienced attorney when attempting to amend its declaration. An attorney familiar with HOA law can help create an enforceable policy that complies with state law and ensures the amendment process is properly observed—mitigating the risk of future challenges to the policy.

As a general matter, an HOA’s enforcement of rental restrictions (or any other restrictions, for that matter) needs to be “procedurally fair and reasonable.” Enforcement should be consistent and proportional and never “arbitrary and capricious.” Saunders v. Thorn Woode Partnership, L.P., 265 Ga. 703, 462 S.E.2d 135 (Ga., 1995). Inconsistent or arbitrary enforcement can provide homeowners with a defense against enforcement actions. White Egret Condo., Inc. v. Franklin, 379 So.2d 346 (Fla. 1979).

In many jurisdictions, courts have found that an association that attempts to enforce a restriction that it has not previously enforced consistently or enforced against some owners but not others—has effectively abandoned or waived its right to enforce the restriction. Liebler v. Point Loma Tennis Club, 40 Cal. App. 4th 1600, 1610-11 (4th Dist. 1995); Prisco v. Forest Villas Condominium Apartments, Inc., 847 So 2d 1012 (Fla.App. Dist.4, 2003).

Similarly, enforcement aimed only at homeowners that fall within certain groups is subject to challenge by the singled-out homeowners. See, e.g., Bloch v. Frischholz, 533 F.3d 562 (7th Cir. 2008).

Fair Housing Act Implications.

Like with any other policies, an HOA’s short-term rental restriction policies need to comply with the federal Fair Housing Act. The FHA prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability. 42 U.S.C. §3604(a). Blatantly discriminatory policies are obviously banned. For instance, an HOA cannot adopt a policy that prohibits short-term rentals to Episcopalians or prevents Episcopalians (but only Episcopalians) from renting their properties.

The FHA can also cover policies and actions that are unintentionally discriminatory. If a policy results in a disproportionately “disparate impact” on a protected class, the policy may violate the FHA. Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 2507 (2015).

“Familial status” discrimination can be a potential FHA tripwire for HOAs. Under federal court decisions interpreting the FHA, “familial status” does not just mean things like whether a person is married, single, or divorced. The term has also been interpreted to include most age-based discrimination. See, Iniestra v. Cliff Warren Investments, Inc., 886 F. Supp. 2d 1161, 1164 (C.D. Cal. 2012). Restrictions against families with children—or restrictions that appear designed to prevent rentals to families with children—can likewise amount to familial status discrimination in violation of the FHA.

So, for instance, an HOA that tries to enforce a validly adopted blanket prohibition on short-term rentals will probably be upheld. But an HOA that allows some short-term rentals—but not to renters who have children—may find itself subject to an FHA complaint.

HOA laws can be complex, with many variations between states. Homeowners who have questions about how their association’s rules affect their rights—and associations that are unsure of the breadth of their restrictions or are considering an amendment to covenants—should consult with an experienced attorney familiar with the HOA laws of the state in which the community is situated.