A simple guide for managing HOA architectural guidelines and homeowner requests

Jake Belding
Jake Belding | 8 min. read

Published on December 13, 2023

Managing architectural changes in an HOA or COA requires a lot of organization. Association boards need to ensure that any proposed changes meet safety guidelines and comply with the bylaws of the association. As an association manager, much of this responsibility falls on your shoulders.

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For that reason, it is important that association managers have a clear architectural review process set up with their HOA boards and a central place to store and share documents, as well as communicate with homeowners.

This article will outline best practices and tips, as well as provide a HOA architectural review checklist, for making the process as smooth as possible.

The HOA Board’s Role in Setting Architectural Guidelines

Architectural guidelines, also known as architectural standards or design guidelines, establish an association’s policies and procedures for improvements and changes to a homeowner’s property. Guidelines may address various aspects of the property, including aesthetics, landscaping, and structural modifications.

Both you and your association boards play a central role in maintaining the aesthetics and safety of their neighborhoods. This includes the responsibility to review and approve any architectural changes proposed by homeowners.

You both must consider factors such as safety, aesthetics, and compliance with local building codes and zoning laws. Many associations consult with architects or other experts to help create the guidelines and then evaluate architectural proposals from homeowners.

This is an all-important step that can make or break the relationship homeowners have with their board and, by extensions, the broader community. It’s one of the reasons that boards turn to association managers to have a trusted expert there to ensure transparency and fairness in the decision-making and communication process.

What Should Be Included in an Architectural Change Request?

First, let’s review some basics.

As an association manager, it’s your job to know what to look for in any request to make an architectural change and to tell homeowners what to include when they submit their proposal. Specifics can differ between HOAs,  but these are the most important to keep in mind.

Adherence to Architectural Guidelines

Before putting together a proposal, homeowners should become familiar with their HOA’s architectural guidelines. Understanding these guidelines from the start saves everyone involved a lot of time and means that there will likely be less back and forth, revision requests, and flat out denials of proposals.

Some of the more standard guidelines include:

  1. Any changes to the exterior of the home must be approved by the HOA before construction begins.
  2. Proposed changes must comply with all local building codes and regulations.
  3. Homeowners must submit detailed plans and specifications outlining the proposed changes.
  4. Proposed changes must maintain or enhance the overall aesthetic and value of the community.
  5. All contractors used for renovations must be properly licensed and insured.
  6. Homeowners are responsible for obtaining all necessary permits for the proposed changes.
  7. Homeowners must agree to maintain the proposed changes and keep them in good condition.
  8. Any changes that could potentially impact neighboring properties must be reviewed by the HOA board.
  9. Homeowners must agree to remove any modifications that do not comply with the association’s guidelines at their own expense.

Even though these architectural guidelines are included with closing documents and welcome packages when homeowners purchase their property, they should be easily accessible to homeowners online, as well.

Parameters of the Proposed Change

Most HOAs make use of a request for proposal form that includes fields for the basic parameters of what the architectural change involves. This includes the type of work to be done, the intended timeframe, the specific materials to be used, and any associated costs.

This form should be standardized to ensure fairness and transparency and blank versions should be accessible to homeowners at any time, ideally online through a homeowner portal or similar technology, but also in paper or by email upon request.

Supporting Documentation

You might also want to request additional documentation to support an architectural application, such as construction plans, permits, or professional quotes. These documents help the HOA to assess the feasibility and safety of the proposed changes, keeping everyone involved honest as the process rolls along.

Again, provide a central place homeowners can submit this documentation, whether that be a cloud-based drive or an association management portal.

Set Expectations

Homeowners should also be prepared to communicate clearly and effectively with the association manager (and members of the board, when needed). Keep in mind that this is a two-way street and holds true at each stage of the review process, from discussing the details of the proposal, answering questions as they arise, providing additional documentation to move the review along, and sharing status updates on approval.

Express to homeowners that they should approach the HOA architectural application process with patience and a willingness to be flexible, just as the board should be mindful of the homeowner’s timeframe and constraints.

You may require modifications to the proposed changes in order to achieve compliance with the association’s guidelines, and homeowners should be prepared to make adjustments in response to feedback.

The HOA Architectural Review Checklist for Community Association Managers

If you’re a seasoned association manager, you most likely have your own process well in place.

If you’re new to associations, however, here’s a step-by-step architectural review checklist on how to proceed with the architectural review process:

1. Establish an architectural review committee

Before even embarking on the review process, consider establishing an architectural review committee (ARC), or review board to review each request. Board members, themselves, may sit on this committee, or they can choose to delegate this role to other members of the HOA (choosing members with a background in law, architecture, or construction, for example). This can provide additional perspectives and more balanced feedback on each proposal, but also requires another level of organization and management.

2. Review the proposed changes

Community association managers and the ARC should review the proposed changes carefully to ensure that they comply with the HOA’s architectural guidelines. They should consider factors such as safety, aesthetics, and compliance with local building codes and zoning laws. At this stage, it may help to bring in an architectural expert to support your decision-making.

3. Assess the impact on property values

Managers should consider how the proposed changes might impact property values within the community. They should determine whether the changes are likely to enhance or detract from the overall appeal of the neighborhood, giving enough freedom to the homeowners to make the space feel their own, while preserving the agreed upon standards of the HOA.

4. Evaluate the quality of the proposed workmanship

When reviewing proposed architectural changes, managers should also evaluate the quality of workmanship that will be required to complete the renovations. They should consider the level of expertise required and ensure that the contractor is licensed and insured. This is where additional documentation, such as contractor quotes and the details of businesses the homeowner plans to hire can help.

5. Verify all permits and approvals

It is important to verify that all necessary permits and approvals have been obtained before approving the proposal. This includes obtaining the necessary building permits, zoning approvals, and any other regulatory permits required for the proposed renovations. Consult a legal expert if you’re not sure of the validity of a permit or the legal compliance of proposed work.

6. Consider any ongoing maintenance and upkeep

Community association managers should also consider the ongoing maintenance and upkeep required for the proposed renovations. They should ensure that the changes will not be overly burdensome for either the homeowner or the association.

Think pools or other water features.

7. Communicate with homeowners

Finally, community association managers should communicate clearly and effectively with homeowners throughout the architectural review process. They should carefully explain any request for modifications to a proposal, citing guidelines and professional feedback from experts to back up their decision making.

Tips for a Smooth Architectural Review Process

Association managers need to balance the interests of each homeowner with the need to maintain a cohesive and attractive neighborhood.

To make the process as smooth as possible, here are some tips for community association managers to consider:

Set up a single source for important updates

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth reiterating: communication is key. This can be done through a reliable, go-to channel like a portal or email. You can also use newsletters, association-wide messages, or community meetings to share important updates on architectural guidelines and changes to the community.

Having a single place to find detailed information about the process, the necessary forms and documents, and any other relevant information can prevent misunderstandings and confusion down the line.

Streamline your review process

For the benefit of both the homeowner and the HOA board, you should streamline the architectural review process as much as possible, while still staying thorough. This can be achieved through timelines for review, including clear instructions for completing the necessary forms and documents, along with how and where they’ll be shared.

HOA managers should maintain accurate records of all architectural changes. That includes documenting the approvals, cost estimates, and any other relevant information related to the proposed changes.

Community association management software, such as Buildium, can keep you organized with little effort, acts as a reliable record of proposals and requested changes, and makes it easy for every party to access the details they need, right when they need them.

Be consistent

Architectural standards and a clearly defined review process are there to promote fairness and consistency. Use these tools as a touchstone when reviewing architectural requests and come back to them in any and all communication you share.

While each case will have its unique aspects, they should all be held to the same standards to ensure a positive outcome and protect the validity of your decision and the reputation of the board.

Foster collaboration

Stay connected with homeowners throughout the review process. Beyond communication, this means always having objective criteria you can point to in a review and, when sharing your decision, leaving the door open for adjustments to a proposal that all parties will be open to. This is easier said than done, but is just as important in preserving the value of a community as adhering to your set of guidelines.

One way to support owners is to help them find cost-effective solutions that meet the HOA’s guidelines and regulations. This gives you greater control over how the changes will take shape while also demonstrating to the homeowner that you’re being constructive in the planning process and helping them to realize their goals and get the most value out of their plan.

Ultimately, a homeowner’s request to make an architectural modification stems from a desire to improve their space and their overall quality of life. This is a goal that the best HOAs share and want for the entire community. It’s a value you can return to when working with homeowners on their proposal.

HOA Architectural Guidelines: The First Step to Enhancing Your Community

Managing HOA architectural changes requires a thoughtful and thorough approach. By following established guidelines, communicating effectively with homeowners, and considering the long-term impact of proposed changes, community association managers can help ensure that their communities remain safe and inviting places to live.

Luckily, association managers don’t have to make this a reality on their own. If you want support handling architectural changes or any other part of managing a community association, consider testing out Buildium with a 14-day trial. It’s free, and doesn’t even require a credit card to get started

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Jake Belding

Jake is a Content Marketing Specialist at Buildium, based in San Francisco, California. With a background in enterprise SaaS and startup communications, Jake writes about technology's impact on daily life.

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