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What Is an HOA? Homeowners Associations -- Explained

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HOA-meeting (Xavier Arnau)

If you're buying a condo, townhouse, or freestanding home in a neighborhood with shared common areas -- such as a swimming pool, parking garage, or even just the security gates and sidewalks in front of each residence -- odds are these areas are maintained by a homeowners association, or HOA.

So what is an HOA, and how will it affect your life?

HOAs help ensure that your community looks its best and functions smoothly, says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. For instance, if the pump in the community swimming pool stops working, someone has to take care of it before the water turns green and toxic, right? Rather than expect any one individual in the neighborhood to volunteer their time and money to fix the problem, HOAs are responsible for getting the job done. And the number of Americans living in HOAs is on the rise, growing from a mere 1% in 1970 to 1 in 4 today, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research. So, it's wise to know exactly how they work.

How much are HOA fees?

To cover these maintenance expenses, HOAs collect fees (monthly or yearly) from all community members. For a typical single-family home, HOA fees will cost homeowners around the $200 to $300 per month, although they can be lower or much higher depending on the size of your unit and the services provided. The larger the home, the higher the HOA fee -- which makes sense, because the family of four in a three-bedroom condo is probably going to be using the common facilities more than a single woman living in a studio.

In addition, most HOAs charge their members a little more than monthly expenses require, so that they can build up a reserve to pay for emergencies and big-ticket items like repairing the roof and water heaters, or acquiring new carpeting, paint, and lights for the hallways.

If the HOA doesn't have enough money in reserve to cover necessary expenses, it can issue a special "assessment," or an extra fee, in addition to your monthly dues, so that the repairs can be made. For example, if the elevator in your condo building goes out and it's going to cost $15,000 to replace it -- but the HOA reserve account holds only $12,000 -- you and the rest of the residents are going to have to pony up at least an additional $3,000, divided among you, to make up the difference.

And yes, you would still have to contribute your share even if you live on the first floor.

HOA rules: What to expect

All HOAs have boards, made up of homeowners in the complex who are typically elected by all homeowners. These board members will set up regular meetings where owners can gather and discuss major decisions and issues with their community. For major expenditures, all members of the HOA usually vote.

In addition to maintaining the common areas, HOAs are also responsible for seeing that its community members follow certain rules. Homeowners receive a copy of these rules, knowns as "covenants, conditions, and restrictions" (CC&Rs), when they move in, and they're required to sign a contract saying that they'll abide by them.

CC&Rs can cover everything from your type of mailbox to the size and breed of your dog. Some HOAs require you to purchase extra homeowners insurance if you own a pit bull, for example; others prohibit certain breeds entirely. An HOA may even regulate what color you paint your house, and what kind of curtains you can hang if your unit faces the street. Its goal is not to meddle -- it's merely to maintain a neighborhood aesthetic. However, if you don't like being told what to do with your home, an HOA may not be for you.

What happens if you violate HOA rules?

That varies from place to place, but if you break the rules -- or fall behind in paying your HOA dues -- the consequences can be severe. You could be evicted, or worse. Some HOAs have the right to foreclose on your property, says Bob Tankel, a Florida attorney specializing in HOA law. So make sure you read your CC&Rs carefully so you know what to expect, and know the pros and cons of HOA living before you buy in.

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