What Is an HOA? How Homeowners Associations Work

Homeowners associations, or HOAs, are official groups of residents that preside over a community. Residents are required to pay HOA fees, which fund amenities.
Aug 16, 2022

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HOAs, or homeowner associations, are private groups that create legally enforceable rules about what you and your neighbors can and can’t do with your property.

Despite their negative portrayal in pop culture, HOAs aren’t always a nitpicky suburban hive mind.

HOA fees pay for neighborhood maintenance and amenities, such as landscaping and parks. This protects property values. And the overwhelming majority of people living in community arrangements (including HOAs) are satisfied with them, according to a 2022 study by the Foundation for Community Association Research.

If you've only heard about HOAs through sitcoms and memes, it's time to put down your pitchforks. (After all, they might be against the landscaping policy.)

Let’s find out how HOAs really work — and what to ask before you buy in an HOA community.

What is an HOA and what does it do?

An HOA is a resident-run group that governs a neighborhood or multi-unit building, primarily by making and enforcing rules to follow if you live there.

Sound like a drag? Not necessarily. When everyone knows what’s allowed, you have support if you have a conflict with a neighbor — such as a noise complaint, an issue with a pet or a passive-aggressive battle over a parking space.

HOAs are funded by resident-paid fees. They are common in housing developments where people share common space or amenities, such as:

Some apartment buildings have an HOA as well.

Do you have to join an HOA?

Not always. HOAs can be voluntary.

  • Voluntary HOAs are optional to join, but members can access shared amenities, like a clubhouse or pool. If you don’t join, you don’t get the perks.

  • Mandatory HOAs are just what they sound like: You have to join if you want to live in the community. That means paying fees and following the bylaws, too.

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How do HOAs work?

HOAs are run by boards of directors, made up of — and elected by — neighborhood residents.

The responsibilities of an HOA board include:

  • Organizing regular meetings.

  • Establishing and maintaining budgets.

  • Vetting and hiring vendors, such as landscapers.

  • Overseeing the reserve fund for special projects.

  • Planning events or social activities.

  • Enforcing the community’s rules, such as issuing warnings or fines.

Most residents (87%) are on friendly terms with their HOA board, according to an April 2022 survey from the Foundation for Community Association Research.

Do HOA board members get paid?

HOA board members are volunteers, so they typically don’t get paid, despite expending quite a bit of time and energy.

That’s why some boards delegate work to a professional HOA management company.

HOA management companies

An HOA management company appoints a professional community manager to the HOA to provide business advice and administrative support. In return for their services, the management company charges the HOA board a fee.

Personality clashes can and do happen, so this arrangement can cause friction if the community manager and the board don’t get along.

What is an HOA fee?

HOA fees are dues that members pay to access the services and amenities managed by the HOA. HOA fees are usually charged monthly, but quarterly fees are also common.

Each association determines the specific services it provides to the community, as well as how much residents have to pay.

What do HOA fees cover?

Generally, HOA fees pay for the upkeep of common areas and amenities, such as:

  • Walkways.

  • Parks.

  • Lighting.

  • Elevators.

  • Pools.

  • Clubhouses.

  • Gyms or fitness centers.

HOA fees can also fund services for the community, such as:

  • Lawn care and landscaping.

  • Maintenance and repairs.

  • Snow removal.

  • Trash pickup.

  • Security.

  • Pest control.

  • Insurance for common areas.

  • Social events, such as cookouts or holiday parties.

Often, part of your monthly HOA dues goes toward your HOA’s reserve fund. This fund pays for known upcoming maintenance or big projects, as well as emergency repairs for shared spaces. If your HOA doesn’t have enough in reserves to pay for a project, it can issue “special assessments” — aka, extra bills. HOAs can also raise fees at any time, if the board approves.

How much are HOA fees?

HOA fees can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars per month, depending on the style of housing and amenities offered.

For example: A resident of a New York high-rise with concierge service and a spa-style fitness center will probably pay higher fees than a resident of a suburban Wisconsin tract house with minimal amenities. And within a given community, owners of a two-bedroom condo generally pay more than owners of a one-bedroom condo.

A 2017 Trulia study, using 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, cites the national average HOA fee at $331 per month. But when inflation goes up, so do HOA fees — so today’s average fees are likely to be higher.

Do you have to pay HOA fees?

Short answer: Yes, just like any other bill.

If you forget a payment or fall on hard times, there’s usually a grace period. After that, expect to get a warning and possibly a late fee.

Any further delay and you could lose your #SundayFunday pool privileges. The HOA board has authority to cut off access to shared amenities for members who are behind on their payments.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you hit a rough spot financially and have trouble paying your fees, arrange a meeting with the HOA board. You may be able to work out a payment plan to see you through tight-money times.

What happens if you don’t pay HOA fees?

If you’re issued a warning and still don’t pay your HOA dues, the board can take more serious action. This can include:

  • Collections: If your HOA sends your past-due account to collections, it can damage your credit score.

  • Liens: If your HOA puts a lien on your property, that can come up in a title search and make it difficult to sell your house.

  • Lawsuits: The HOA can sue you for unpaid dues in some states. This may result in wage garnishment or a levy against your bank account.

  • Foreclosure:  In some cases, your HOA may be able to foreclose on your property based on its covenants and state law.

Common HOA rules and regulations

HOA rules are known as covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CC&Rs.

When it comes to houses, most HOA rules center on the appearance of your property. That’s because a consistent aesthetic throughout the neighborhood tends to preserve property values.

An HOA might set standards for these aspects of a home’s appearance:

  • Paint colors.

  • Roofing and siding materials.

  • Lawns, gardens and landscaping.

  • Additional structures, such as fences, sheds or pools.

  • Driveway or street parking.

  • Outdoor and holiday decorations.

  • Overall tidiness, such as putting your garbage cans away.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Planning a home improvement project? Your HOA might need to approve it before you can begin. Leave some extra time to complete forms or submit project plans to the HOA board. Make sure you’re familiar with your community’s CC&Rs, too.

Other common HOA rules center on allowable conduct within the community. This might include:

  • Noise restrictions.

  • Acceptable pets.

  • Smoking.

  • Renting out your home, including long-term tenants or short-term rentals like Airbnb.

  • Business use of your property.

You might welcome these rules if you’re concerned about noisy or sloppy neighbors. But if you want to install solar panels, paint your front door neon pink or throw late-night parties, you might run into trouble with your HOA.

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If someone breaks the community’s rules, it’s the HOA’s job to enforce them. Disciplinary action can include suing a homeowner, if other interventions don’t resolve the issue first. The specific authority an HOA has is generally spelled out in the community’s CC&Rs.

If you ignore the rules — say, by adopting a Saint Bernard when residents are limited to dogs that are 30 pounds or less — the HOA can begin the enforcement process. Usually, that starts with a strongly worded letter. After a formal warning, further repercussions could include fines, loss of access to community facilities, and even a lawsuit.

A local HOA isn’t above the law, though. When enforcing violations, they are still obliged to follow state laws, as well as federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Act.

What to know about an HOA before buying

Before you buy a house in an HOA community, it pays to do your research and learn how to spot the signs of poor management.

Successful HOAs are democratic, with board members acting in the best interests of residents. You can get a sense of this by sitting in on a meeting or reading the most recent meeting minutes.

To make sure the HOA is a good fit for you, find out the answers to these questions before you buy.

  • What is the HOA’s financial condition? Look for ample cash in a reserve fund. Ask how often the HOA has tapped its reserves in the past and what known projects need to be funded soon.

  • How much are the HOA fees, and what do they cover? Find out how often the fees are charged and what the penalties are for late payments. Also ask if the HOA has a schedule for raising its fees. Check in with yourself, too: Do the fees fit your budget? Do the amenities fit with your lifestyle, or are you paying for perks you won’t use?

  • Are there any ongoing disputes with homeowners? Talk to neighbors or poke around neighborhood social media groups to see if there are any known issues with the HOA. A dispute with a homeowner could be simple — say, someone has repeated noise or parking violations. Or it could be something more serious such as known construction defects in the development or even embezzlement of HOA fees. An online search can pull up major lawsuits or public complaints.

  • What are the rules for the community? Do they align with my values? Rules that don’t fit your vision for your ideal home life — such as limitations on pets, exterior paint colors or children’s play structures — won’t likely go away. Read the CC&Rs thoroughly and, if they don’t completely suit you, make sure you’re comfortable with compromising.

Are HOAs worth it?

HOA-style living isn’t right for everyone. When they work well, HOAs can maintain property values by ensuring that their communities stay visually appealing — no rusting cars on front lawns, for example. When they don’t work well, whether because of high fees or poor management, they can make owning a home a bureaucratic pain.

There are going to be rules to follow and bills to pay no matter where you live. Living somewhere with an HOA, especially one that works well, can provide tangible lifestyle benefits — if you’re willing to give up some autonomy and pay the fees on time.

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