HOA Homeowners' Use and Responsibility for Common Areas

If living in a planned community, be sure to research what areas or amenities you're allowed to use, and what you therefore must help pay for.

By , J.D. · UCLA School of Law

One of the perks of owning a home in a planned development is the right to use shared common elements or areas. For example, you might enjoy a workout in the common fitness room, or a swim in the common pool. And the best part is, someone else ordinarily maintains such amenities!

Exactly which areas or elements are actually open for every homeowner's use is not always straightforward, however. Your right to use a particular common element, and whether you have any maintenance responsibilities for it, will depend on the rules governing the development and which common element is at issue.

Finding Information on Common Elements in Development's Governing Documents

In most developments, detailed information about the common elements is found in the development's governing documents. These normally include the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions and Easements (CC&Rs), the articles and bylaws of the homeowner's association (HOA), and any separate rules and regulations. The type and location of the common elements are also described on the development's plat or map.

To get a copy of the governing documents and plat or map, request them from the development's HOA, from your real estate broker (if you have one), or from the real estate records office in the county where the development is located.

The CC&Rs typically define what a common element is; most often, as property in a development owned in common by all the homeowners (rather than by an individual homeowner). Almost all developments have "general" common elements. Some developments might also have "limited" or "exclusive" common elements (also defined in the CC&Rs).

Additionally, the development's plat or map will show the physical location of all common elements. The plat or map might also describe a common element as a general, limited, or exclusive common element.

General Common Elements and Who Can Use Them

The CC&Rs typically define general common elements as those available for the use of all the homeowners in the development. Their exact location is likely to be depicted in the development's plat or map.

In a single-family home development, often all common elements are for general use. These might include, for example, a pool, community park, or clubhouse. In a more upscale development, general common elements might also include things like common entrance gates, fountains, tennis courts, and spas.

Limited Common Elements and Who Can Use Them

The definition of limited common elements that you'll find in your CC&Rs is likely to say they can be used by more than one but fewer than all homeowners in the development. Townhome and condominium developments often have limited common elements in addition to general ones. Examples include a patio shared by several owners or a pool for the use of a group of several condominium buildings in a large complex. The CC&Rs will describe which homeowners have the right to use which limited common elements.

To really understand who has the right to use a limited common element, however, you will probably need to look at the CC&Rs and the map or plat together. For example, a condominium complex's CC&Rs might provide that the homeowners in condominium buildings 1, 2, and 3 are the only owners with the right to use the pool described on the condominium map as "Common Pool A." You would need to refer to the plat or map to find out which buildings and pool the CC&Rs are referring to.

Exclusive Common Elements and Who Can Use Them

Some developments also contain exclusive common elements. Your CC&Rs are likely to define these as being for the exclusive use of one homeowner. Although any development can designate a common element as an exclusive common element, they are found more often in condominium or townhome developments (rather than single-family home developments).

For example, exclusive common elements might include a balcony accessed by one condominium unit, the front yard of a townhome unit, or window boxes attached to a condominium unit.

Again, you will likely need to consult the map or plat along with the CC&Rs to determine which owner has the use of an exclusive common element. For example, a townhome development's CC&Rs might provide that the owner of townhome unit 1-B has the exclusive right to use the parking space identified as parking space 1-B on the map.

Who Must Maintain the Common Elements

The CC&Rs (and other governing documents) determine who must maintain the common areas. Part of this determination depends on what type of common element it is.

The HOA is normally responsible for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of all general common elements. It pays for these by collecting periodic dues from each homeowner. If you think about it, this arrangement makes sense. Since all the homeowners have the right to use the general common elements, they all share the costs of maintaining them.

The maintenance obligations for limited and exclusive common elements are typically more complicated. In some developments or instances, the HOA is responsible for maintenance, and in others it's the responsibility of those homeowners who hold the right to use the particular common element. Look to the governing documents to determine who must maintain, repair, and replace limited or exclusive common elements.

In many cases, the HOA must take care of repairing and replacing limited or exclusive common elements, but the owners with the rights to use them must keep them maintained. For example, if a condominium unit owner has a balcony described as an exclusive common element (available only for that owner's use), that owner will likely need to perform regular maintenance and upkeep on the balcony. However, if the balcony rips off in a hurricane, the HOA might be responsible for replacing it.

HOA Common Element Rules and Restrictions

Even if a homeowner has the right to use a common element, this right is subject to any rules and restrictions in the governing documents. The restrictions in the CC&Rs and in any separate HOA rules and regulations can be as numerous and diverse as the people creating them.

For example, a development might have rules and regulations governing what hours the common pool is open, what type of shoes must be worn on the tennis courts, where one can walk on the common parks, or what age one must be to use the fitness room. The only way to know what all the rules and regulations are is to review the governing documents thoroughly, and keep up to date on any additions and changes.

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