In many areas, Homeowners Associations (HOAs) can present significant barriers to homeowners’ ability to install solar.
In 2020, for example, Solar United Neighbors estimated that HOAs wrongly denying residents the ability to go solar had cost Virginia solar contractors more than $7 million in retail solar sales since 2014. While Virginia has since passed a law protecting homeowners who want to install solar from “burdensome homeowners association (HOA) restrictions,” in many states HOAs are still butting heads with homeowners that want to install solar.
As a solar contractor, how much HOAs impact your business depends on your state’s laws and the HOA bylaws in the neighborhoods you target. However, there are a number of strategies you can employ to help ensure HOA approval for your customers’ PV solar systems, regardless of where you do business.
For this article, we went right to the source, getting proven techniques from longtime solar contractors who have extensive experience working with HOAs. We supplement those interviews with our own extensive research to help you close more sales for projects in HOA communities — and guide your prospective customer through the process as well.
HOAs’ impact on solar installations
HOAs are neighborhood organizations that create and enforce rules for houses or condominiums in established communities.
Solar Power World says, “A major directive of the HOA is neighborhood uniformity and/or a high standard of appearance for each property.” HOAs’ concerns, and the resulting rules, about solar installations tend to relate to how PV panels will affect the look of neighborhoods, and in turn property values.
These rules can impact a homeowner’s efforts to go solar. A significant proportion of American homeowners interact with an HOA: over 370,000 HOAs in the US regulate about 40 million households or 53% of owner-occupied households. That means there’s a good chance that your prospect needs to work with one. However, about half of US states have laws preventing HOAs from denying solar for aesthetic reasons, so the impact on your business is partially dependent on where you operate.
How to get solar approval from an HOA
It’s helpful to understand the typical process for getting approval for a solar installation from an HOA so that you are better able to guide your customer through it.
Usually, a customer requests an application from their HOA or gives the contractor permission to do so. Mike Busby, Co-Founder & President of Victory Solar, a leading residential and commercial installer in Texas, spoke with Aurora about his company’s extensive experience working with HOAs. He states that his company does all the HOA paperwork on the homeowner’s behalf, only getting the homeowner involved if they have to.
Bobby Custard, Solar Consultant for Pur Solar & Electrical, an Arizona-based contractor with over 40 years of electrical contracting experience, also shared his insights about interacting with HOAs. He says that after Pur Solar has given the customer everything they need to review and sign, the company notifies the HOA when they begin the permitting process. They send the HOA a copy of the plans, the proposal, and images of what the project will look like.
If the application is approved by the HOA, you can move forward with the installation. If not, you should understand the applicable laws in your state in case you are able to help your customer appeal the decision. We’ll cover some of those laws in just a bit.
There are a number of best practices to keep in mind that may help make the process of getting HOA solar approval easier and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
1. Know your state’s laws
“Solar access” laws that protect homeowners’ rights during the HOA solar approval process have been adopted by many states — in fact, there are now over 25 states that have some version of solar access rights.
Given that you may be the one educating your customers about their rights in this respect, it’s important to know your state’s existing laws, whether they provide protections from HOA solar restrictions, and what forms they take.
What are solar access laws and how do they work?
Solar access laws prevent HOAs from prohibiting solar panel installations or having contracts that restrict homeowners from installing them. However, HOAs can usually make certain requests about a system, as long as they don’t make the proposed solar system less effective or more expensive. For example, HOAs are often allowed to place certain restrictions on systems, like retaining the right to influence design elements of a rooftop solar array, such as requiring that all electrical wiring be placed out of sight.
California has had The Solar Rights Act since 1978, which has helped encourage the growth of solar in the state and is the basis for many other states’ protective laws. It includes protections that limit HOA ability to pass prohibitive laws but allows an HOA to impose “reasonable restrictions” on solar energy systems. These restrictions are currently limited to ones that don’t increase the cost of a proposed system by more than $1,000 or decrease its potential performance by more than 10%.
Under this law, a homeowner does have some responsibility to their neighbors when they seek to go solar. For example, in multifamily dwellings with common roof areas an applicant must notify each owner in the building about a proposal. Additionally, they might also be required to have homeowner liability coverage and provide proof of this to their HOA annually.
Arizona has similar solar access laws to California but with less stringency and specificity about what an HOA can and cannot do. For example, the “reasonableness” of HOA solar installation restrictions is decided on a case-by-case basis in the courts.
However, Custard explains that protective Arizona laws have made the HOA approval process very easy for Pur Solar & Electrical. 60-80% of Pur Solar’s installations involve HOAs, and they have never been rejected. He states that even when his company installed several systems near upscale private golf courses, they were able to install the panels facing the fairway for one and facing the putting green for another.
The actual provisions of solar access laws vary widely by state and comprehensive information about state and local rules is available at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).
2. Be your customer’s guide through the HOA approval process
Functioning as your prospect’s expert on how to navigate their HOA’s solar stipulations and state laws from the beginning of the sales process can go a long way towards winning the deal.
Find out the HOA’s rules about PV panel installation early, particularly any rules regarding design and placement. These can impact aspects of the installation process, such as system price, even if your state has solar access laws.
Gauge your prospect’s level of familiarity with this topic and make sure they’re aware of their HOA’s rules, as well as their state’s laws. “Many homeowners are not aware of their rights,” says Custard.
He explains that a homeowner may have just bought their house or might be new to the area.
“They may have just gotten their HOA rule book, and they’re trying to figure out what direction they can put their car or what their yard has to look like,” Custard said. “So they’re a little bit overwhelmed and gun shy.”
Victory Solar’s Busby adds that while some people know how the approval process works or are even on their HOA board, others are completely unaware of how it works.
Custard explains that prospects are often concerned about what their HOA will say regarding installing solar. To help ease these concerns, his team makes sure to show the homeowner information about Arizona’s HOA solar laws through emails or printed articles.
“The prospect feels much more comfortable moving forward knowing that if they put down a deposit and get the ball rolling with solar,” Custard said. “The HOA isn’t going to be throwing speed bumps in the path.”
3. Have a Streamlined HOA Application Process
It helps to show your prospects that you and your team are aware of how to achieve an expedited approval process. For example, there are ways you can reassure a prospect’s HOA and address their concerns. This can be done by demonstrating how PV panels can increase property values and providing examples of successful installations you have done for similar neighborhoods and home types.
Busby notes that Victory Solar has a streamlined process in place to ensure HOA solar approval given that they deal with HOAs on about 90% of their projects.
“We probably submit too much paperwork but have a 100% approval rate,” he explained. “The paperwork has got to be very detailed and ironclad. An HOA can rarely oppose that.”
Busby also asserts that an important part of a smooth HOA solar approval process is having an operations team that gets paperwork together efficiently.
“You have to make the right hires within the operations group of your organization because they’re just as important as your roof crew,” he advised. “If they’re fast on the paperwork approval it flows down through every part of the operations side. As a result, we’re very quick. We install systems within 30 to 40 days while the industry average is 150 days.”
4. Be Creative and Flexible
HOA rules may require that you adjust your approach and think outside the box, even in a state with solar access laws. Victory Solar’s Busby had a couple real-world examples to help show the importance of flexibility and creativity:
- Victory Solar was able to secure approval for a client with a Spanish tile roof whose HOA had already rejected ground mount system proposals from three different contractors. They did this by suggesting a ballasted ground mount system with a black mesh fence screen to obscure the system from view. It included removing the grass and putting in white rock for a flat roof commercial system on the ground and ensuring the system was below the fence line.
- One customer in an affluent neighborhood had an HOA that wanted the solar system to be installed out of view. Victory’s team noticed that the customer had an old unused concrete tennis court and suggested the customer repurpose the court as a solar pad for a ballasted ground mount solar system.
You may also consider adjusting the equipment you use. For example, using solid black panels.
“HOAs very much prefer a solid black panel with a black screen instead of a white paper backing with a silver frame,” Custard explained. “When we use these kinds of panels they are more receptive to the installation and are less likely to come back with any questions, even in places that have really specific, stringent rules.”
5. Educate Solar Prospects and HOAs
Providing educational information to both prospects and HOAs is a great way to help improve the HOA approval process, and ultimately close more business.
Laura Ann Arnold of the Indiana Distributed Energy Alliance, a state that currently has a host of solar related HOA challenges, says that “the solar industry as a whole needs to stay vigilant on HOA solar issues and work to educate the public as more people want to go solar.”
This may mean providing homeowners with information about HOA prohibitions and restrictions regarding solar in order to encourage them to ask questions before they buy a home. It may also mean seeking ways to educate HOA boards about removing outdated strictures or easing overly prohibitive rules.
Arnold describes how some boards don’t understand the impact of certain rules like limiting solar to the back of the house or away from the street when it faces north. “There is a lack of understanding about the technology and the economics.”
Using these techniques when working with a customer and their Homeowner’s Association can help you offer the best customer service and increase the likelihood of closing the sale.
A common theme for all of these tips, and our final takeaway, is that coming from a position of cooperation and consensus can lead to an expedited, and ultimately successful, approval process.
As Custard explains, “As long as you’re civil with an HOA so that you don’t end up on their radar as a ‘problem person,’ they’re much more likely to help instead of hinder the process.”