A homeowners association can seem like a great idea. Neighborhoods governed by an HOA are often peaceful and pristinely manicured. But buying one of these homes comes at a cost. Before you buy a home governed by an HOA, here are some things to consider.

Read Before You Sign

All too often, hurried homeowners sign on the dotted line before they fully understand what the documents mean. And who can blame them? During the home buying process, you life is an unending series of documents that you need to sign. But an HOA agreement is going to have a pretty big impact on your day-to-day life so it’s important that you understand what’s in it.

There’s a pretty wide spectrum when it comes to what an HOA might cover. Some agreements might be limited to rules for common spaces like a parking garage or community pool. Others agreements, however, can get extremely specific.

For instance, many HOAs have clauses ensuring that all of the houses in the development look the same, which means you can’t choose to repaint or make major changes to the exterior of the home. An HOA might even get as specific as forbidding lawn furniture, bird bath or swing sets in the yard. HOA agreements also enforce community standards, such as quiet hours, which means you might have to cut your weekend get-togethers short. With an HOA you’re not just buying a home, you’re buying into a certain lifestyle, so make sure it fits your life before you sign.

Peace Comes At a Price

In addition to the rules, HOAs also come at a financial cost. The association is tasked with maintaining common areas and structures. In a condo complex, for instance, the HOA might have to set aside money to fix the building’s roof or foundation. In an HOA-governed neighborhood, the money might go to maintaining a park or putting on community events. Usually fees run a few hundred dollars per month, but before you consider buying a property covered by an HOA make sure you know how much you’ll be paying and what the money pays for.

Do Your Research

When it’s running smoothly, a homeowners associations will help keep the peace and ensure that everybody stays happy. But sometimes, an HOA can create a poisonous environment, causing homeowners to constantly bickerer with one another. To avoid buying into a bad neighborhood make sure you do your research. Take a look at the minutes of past meetings to see what the hot button issues are in the neighborhood. You can also speak to the HOA board members to get a sense of whether they’ll be easy to deal with.

Voluntary HOAs

Not all HOAs are put in place to impose requirements and restrictions on homeowners. Some agreements are purely voluntary, which means the association doesn’t have the ability to levy fees or compel homeowners to maintain their homes in a certain way. A voluntary HOA is there to offer a forum for problems in the community, or to plan a community project. If you’re wary of letting an HOA control your life, but still want to live in a place with a strong sense of community, a home in a neighborhood with a voluntary HOA might be for you.

Get Involved

An HOA is a democracy, not a dictatorship. So if you don’t like the rules in your community, the best thing to do is get involved. You can start by attending meetings and bringing your concerns before the board. Petition your neighbors to get them involved. If you’re the type that likes to lead, run for a seat on the board to push for the changes that you want. A homeowners association works best when it has the full and active participation of the community.