Homeowners Associations – the very words might conjure up thoughts of a senior retirement community, but don’t be so quick to pass judgment.

Generally, if you’re buying into a residential community — comprised of condominiums or single-family homes — these are usually governed by a Homeowner’s Association or HOAs.

Is this a good thing or should an HOA make you skeptical?

The answer isn’t fast and simple. HOAs do come with significant pros, including giving you access to community amenities like swimming pools, parks, and fitness centers. However, when you reside in a community run by an HOA, you must follow the association’s rules, which could limit everything from how many pets you can own in your condo or home to what alterations you can make to your property. You’ll also have to pay an extra monthly fee to support the association, too.

Before you move into a residential community governed by an HOA, do your research. Find out exactly how much it costs to be a part of the HOA and what benefits the association offers its member-owners.

Paying Those HOA Fees

When most owners think of HOAs, they think of that extra monthly fee. And it’s true — HOAs can be expensive. Fees can vary widely, but you’ll usually pay somewhere between $100 to $600 a month, though condos and housing developments with more amenities will typically charge more.

Why the monthly fee? It’s what you pay to make sure the common areas of the community, be it the lobby or parking lot in a condominium, or the swimming pool and community center in a housing subdivision, are maintained and repaired. The fees Homeowners’ Associations receive each month from residents go into a fund. The officers running the HOA — usually residents of the community— use this money to fund landscaping, mowing, cleaning services, maintenance, and any repair jobs that arise.

A Special Assessment Can Hurt

There might be a time when the HOA votes for a special assessment. This can be a big hit to your finances. For example, if your condo building’s roof needs to be replaced. Instead of paying for this big expense from the pool of money collected each month from HOA fees, the association might vote to levy a special assessment to cover the replacement costs.

In an assessment, each household in the community pays an extra fee to fund the repair job. These extra financial hits can be hefty. Make sure your HOA has enough money in its coffers for when an emergency repair comes up. You don’t want to be subject to a big assessment each time something goes wrong in your condo building or subdivision.

Amenities Can Make an HOA Alluring

There is a huge positive that goes with HOAs: They make amenities in subdivisions and condo complexes possible. For example, you might not be able to afford an in-ground swimming pool or on-site fitness center on your own. But if you buy into a condo development or residential subdivision, the fees collected by the HOA give you the opportunity to enjoy these amenities.

Just make sure the amenities are important to you. Otherwise, you’ll be paying a monthly fee for swimming pools, clubhouses, and business centers that you never use.

HOAs Do Limit You

Every Homeowners’ Association publishes its own set of covenants, conditions, and restrictions, better known as its CC&Rs. These rules can seriously restrict your activities while living in the community. Your association’s rules might restrict you to one dog, for example. It might prevent you from painting the exterior of your home your favorite color of blue. The rules may even forbid you from making certain exterior improvements to your home, like adding windows, extra room additions, etc.

Again, it’s important to read a copy of an association’s CC&R documents before making an offer on a residence.

Team Player; Serving on the HOA Board

HOAs are governed by a board made up of residents of the housing community. If you want to have a say on how your association operates, run for a spot on the HOA Board; HOAs run regular elections. Sitting on an HOA may give you more power over how your condo development or subdivision is operated. But it also comes with lots of responsibility; you are, after all, responsible for determining how to spend the money of your fellow residents.