Dr. HOA,

I installed Christmas lights and decorations, and I received a threatening violation letter stating that if I did not remove the lights and decorations from my balcony and front-yard area that I would be fined and the association would remove everything at my expense.

Are they allowed to forbid me from putting up Christmas decorations and would they have the right to take them down and charge me?

 —Kristin H.

Hello Kristin,

Happy New Year and thank you for the seasonally relevant question. This is a hot topic in many condominium associations, so I am glad I have the opportunity to help clarify association rights as they relate to the installation of decorations, not only during the holiday season, but throughout the entire year.

From holiday wreaths in the winter to wind chimes in the summer, I often hear condominium homeowners expressing dissatisfaction with their community’s rules and restrictions.

As a condominium owner, you most likely own your unit’s air space, but you do not have fee simple ownership, or absolute legal title to real property, including the structure and the land.

The homeowners association actually owns the land, and all buildings and structures. Because owners are members of the association, they legally own an undivided interest in all of the association common area, including buildings or structures.

The key term is “undivided interest.” If the condominium complex consists of 100 units, each owner has a 1/100th, or 1 percent, ownership interest in the association’s property and structures.

That means that your neighbors across the community have a 1-percent ownership interest in your building, and you have a 1-percent ownership interest in its building.

One of the primary responsibilities of a condominium homeowners association is to maintain the value and integrity of all of the association’s property, both the structures and the land, for the benefit of property values and owners’ interests.

If an owner decides to install holiday lights or a wind chime, he or she is most likely going to be using nails or screws, which will penetrate the building. Over time, nails and screws that create holes in wood and stucco could cause building-maintenance problems (e.g. water intrusion into the wood or structure).

Any required repairs are the responsibility of the association — and therefore funded by the association — which, of course, comes from homeowner assessments.

In some cases, if the repairs are significant enough and unforeseen, a special assessment may be necessary to fund the expense, creating a financial burden for every owner within the association.

To ensure that the regular assessments levied are adequate to maintain the association’s property, rules and regulations intended to protect the integrity of the property are absolutely necessary and must be strictly enforced.

Since the association owns the common areas, including landscaping and structures, it has a legal right to require owners to remove unauthorized decorations.

Additionally, if an owner does not comply with the association’s request to remove decorations from common area elements, the association has the right to have the decorations removed at the owner’s expense.

I understand at times it feels like the association is being petty or worrying about minor, or what seem to be insignificant issues, but rest assured the rules and regulations where created to protect the value and integrity of the neighborhood, and ultimately your investment.

If you would like to install decorations, just make sure they are not installed within the common area landscaping or on decks and balconies if the method of installation involves penetrating the building.

I encourage owners who would like to put up decorations to submit an architectural application or proposal for the association’s review and approval.

There are several non-invasive methods for hanging decorations, so there’s a possibility that your association may permit decorations if they are appropriately installed.

It is also important to remind owners to review their CC&Rs and community rules since associations often have restrictions regarding when owners are permitted to display holiday decorations.