Everyone likes receiving approval letters. A letter of approval is a written consent by a regulatory authority or body to proceed with a specific change, action or activity.
An approval letter may be sent in response to a number of requests, but when it comes to HOAs, approval letters are generally sent to homeowners who want to make an architectural change to the outside of their homes.
Owners may submit an architectural change request if they want to:
- Paint the exterior or trim of their home
- Redesign or install landscaping
- Build a fence, deck or patio
- Put a shed or storage unit in their backyard
- Install solar panels or a satellite dish
- Add an aboveground pool to their property
If the architectural review committee and/or board feels that a request is reasonable and should be given approval based on the association’s architectural guidelines, governing documents, bylaws, and rules, then it will send the owner an approval letter.
Boards cannot arbitrarily approve or deny architectural change requests. Instead, decisions must be made based on the rules and guidelines set out by the association. This way, the approval process is less subjective and more consistent.
One of the main functions of architectural standards (sometimes referred to as design rules or architectural standards) is to help maintain property values. The development should maintain some sense of uniformity, and remain aesthetically pleasing to everyone. That’s one reason why homeowners can’t paint their house bright yellow. Architectural guidelines establish an association’s policies and procedures for changes and improvements to an owner’s property. Architectural guidelines often include aesthetic considerations, which generally vary from one community to another.
Architectural guidelines cover issues like what colours owners can and can’t use on the front door, how large decks can be, and when holiday decorations are permitted.
Architectural guidelines are developed and approved by the association’s board of directors. Adopting or amending architectural guidelines is considered an operating rule change, meaning that the board must notify all owners before a new guideline can be incorporated.
3 things to know about approval letters
Below are some key things to know about HOA approval letters. While every association might have a different approval process, these points are generally applicable for all developments.
1. Homeowners must submit an architectural change request first
Your association’s CC&Rs should address the project approval process, and state which forms owners need to submit to the board. Alternatively, this process can be brought online, and with the appropriate software, owners can submit architectural change requests through their personal accounts. Digital submissions are much easier to manage and approve, and boards don’t end up with stacks of paper applications.
Homeowners need to follow the formal process established by the association when submitting an architectural change request. Depending on the association’s rules, the applications for architectural change requests and architectural variances may be the same form, or there may be separate applications for these requests. However, they will generally follow the same process for review. Typically, the process goes something like this:
- The owner applies for architectural review committee approval. The application will likely ask for a description of the property location, details of the proposed project, an estimate for the work schedule, and the owner may need their neighbours to sign the application to let the committee know that they are aware of the request as well
- Depending on the project, the application may also require a list of documents to be submitted with the application. The committee may need to see copies of architectural plans, permits, or surveys
- The architectural review committee will meet to review applications for approval. Under its operational rules and duties to the association, the architectural review committee should be reviewing applications for compliance with architectural guidelines
- In most cases, recommendations from the review committee will be sent to the board of directors. The board will have the final say, and approve or decline the application
- The association’s CC&Rs should set forth a time limit within which the review committee and board of directors must give homeowners an answer. Boards must abide by these timelines. Failing to provide an answer within the statutory time limit can expose the board to legal issues if an owner decides to pursue the matter
Requests for architectural variances, changes that would constitute a departure from the stated criteria in the guidelines, will typically not be permitted. However, the governing documents may provide for variances in rare and extraordinary circumstances, or cases where an owner is experiencing severe hardship.
2. Approval letters may come with conditions
If a board agrees to a change, there are often certain conditions that come with the approval. For example, the change may be contingent on a time limit, or the owner may still have to acquire a permit from the city before the project can be completed.
Any conditions should be clearly stated in the approval letter. Conditions should be reasonable, and allow the owner to complete the project in a fair amount of time. Asking an owner to repair their roof in one weekend would be unfair, but they shouldn’t have the option of drawing out the project for months, either.
3. It’s more efficient to send approval letters electronically
Provided your association permits you to send documents electronically, the board can send approval letters using email, or members can use property management software like Condo Control to manage architectural changes requests. When an owner submits a request through their account, the board can vote on and respond to every request without even having to meet in person. The board can also send attachments, such as approval letters, through the platform, and the owner will receive the letter right away.
This is quite useful, especially for applications that have a time limit. Time isn’t wasted mailing the letter, and the applicant receives a response sooner. Plus, the association ends up saving some money on print and mailing costs.
Can an owner appeal a decision?
Boards can’t approve every single architectural change request, and sometimes they will need to deny applications. A board’s decision on an architectural change application is usually final unless the decision is arbitrary. That being said, a homeowner may appeal to the board of directors within a specified time (usually 30 to 45 days) after the board of directors issues its decision, depending on what the association’s documents say.
Be extra cautious about following appeal processes very carefully.
What if an owner starts a project without approval?
If an owner has not submitted any formal architectural change request, and the change goes against the association’s rules or guidelines, then the board has the right to ask the owner to “undo” the work they have performed. The board could also issue a fine.
Before taking more aggressive actions, it is strongly advised that the board speak to the homeowner first. Perhaps there was just a misunderstanding or miscommunication that can be worked out by initiating a simple conversation.
After talking, document the conversation in writing. Send the owner a letter explaining how they’ve violated the rules, and be clear about the proper steps they must take before making any further progress on the project. The letter should include the violation date, a description of what happened, how the violation can be resolved, and when the corrective actions must be completed by. You may also include a reminder of the repercussions the homeowner will face if the rule continues to be violated. Finally, the letter should contain a copy of the rule that has been broken.
If the conversation didn’t motivate the owner to do things correctly, then the next step would be to issue a formal violation letter.
The homeowner has the right to have a hearing with the board to rectify the situation. If the owner presents a good case against the fine, then the board could decide to waive it.
If after all of this, no resolution has been found, then legal action may be required. Lawsuits can be time-consuming and costly, which is why court should only be used as a last resort.
Approval letters always bring good news. When talking specifically about HOAs, approval letters are usually sent to applicants who have asked to make some sort of architectural change to their home’s exterior. This could be for a different colour of paint on their door, a small pool, a new deck, or even a different type of grass.
Provided the request is reasonable, and does not go against any of the association’s rules, the board should be able to let the homeowner make the change that they have requested. The approval letter will detail any conditions that the owner must follow, such as time limits, hours that work cannot be performed, etc.
Approval letters can be sent through the mail, but using a digital form of communication will expedite the process for all parties involved, and make life a little easier for busy board members.
Download our free HOA approval letter template