It’s that time of year again.  Time to be bring peace and joy to the community by decking your house out in lights, ornaments, and inflatable Santas – right? If you’re planning on decorating your house or condo for the holidays this year, then it’s a good idea to know your HOA’s rules as well as your rights as an owner. Here are a few things to know and to look out for as you begin to deck the halls and do your HOA holiday decorating:

HOAs Have Their Own Set of Rules for HOA Holiday Decorating

Every Homeowners Association and Condo Association have their own specific rules and guidelines for holiday decorations. Take a moment to look over yours before you spend a pretty penny on the new blinking lights this year. Many Homeowners Associations have rules on the types decorations that you can and cannot use. Some don’t allow noise-making machines, or lawn ornaments above a certain size.

Also, it’s important to know when you can start decorating. The rule of thumb for most HOAs is November 30th for the holiday season, but it can vary a bit depending on your CC&R. It’s also important to know how long decorations can last past the holidays. You don’t want to risk a pesky fine for leaving your lights out for too long.

Common areas are subject to regulation as well. Particularly in condominiums, hanging festive lights and other decorations in the hallways can pose safety hazards and can be obstructive. Be sure to keep this in mind if you live in a shared space.

How to Stay Merry

Again, all HOAs are different, but there are certain rights and privileges that homeowners are guaranteed under state and federal law that (obviously) usurp any HOA authority. Oftentimes with holiday decorations, religious freedom is brought up, and there is no shortage of cases around the country that indicate that homeowners have the right to decorate their homes with religious decorations under the protection of the First Amendment.

However, these cases usually involve the singling out of a specific religious ban, and usually large, and conspicuously visible and significant religious symbols, such as crosses, mezuzahs, etc. are the sources of contention. HOAs DO have the right to provide a ban on all religious symbol decorations on the exterior of homes and common areas if they so choose. Be sure to keep this in mind if you’re thinking of purchasing a life-sized nativity scene and placing it in your yard, as you may be forced to remove it. Most lights, wreaths, and other common decorations that are not strictly and exclusively religious usually do not fall under these kinds of bans, but again, it’s important to make sure what your CC&R allows.

In California, the state rules and laws on holiday decoration are fairly minimal, and much is left up to the HOAs for interpretation. Many communities’ covenants prohibit “any exterior change or alteration of any nature without the written approval of the Architectural Control Committee,” meaning you can’t build an ice-skating rink in your front yard, but you can usually hang some lights. The Davis-Stirling Act states that the separation of church and state does not apply to HOAs in California, so it is possible to see religiously affiliated material in the common areas of your neighborhood, as long as a certain religious holiday isn’t unfairly singled out. This may surprise some of you, which is all the more reason to sit down and read your community’s guidelines.

Just remember that the holidays are a time of enjoyment and giving thanks, and the season is rarely soured by a bunch of unreasonable rules. The majority of the time, simple regulations around overtly obstructive and distracting decorations is all that’s needed, and most modest decorating is welcomed without conflict. But if you have neighbors who syncs music to the light show on their front lawn that runs every 15 minutes – or even if you are that neighbor, then be sure to know your HOA Holiday Decorating Rules, and you can keep spreading the cheer without disturbing the Grinches down the street.