Homeowners associations aren’t for everyone.

You might be suited to living within a homeowners association if you prefer the company of like-minded neighbors. But an association might not be a good fit if you’re a free spirit — the type who displays a decorative flag for every occasion, for example.

A homeowners association, or HOA, can make you take down your flag commemorating National Hot Dog Month.

That’s July, in case you’re wondering.

Benefits of homeowner associations

“My clients who choose to buy in an HOA appreciate the sense of community and the security of knowing friends and neighbors are nearby,” says Trudy Severa, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Reston, Va. “The lifestyle of living in an HOA means that friends with similar interests are accessible for both children and adults, and there are usually amenities for everyone to enjoy.”

For Beth Shiffman, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Tenafly, N.J., the biggest benefit for many homebuyers of an HOA or condo association is the reduction in homeownership responsibilities.

“It’s an ideal lifestyle for a lot of people who want to own a home but don’t want the physical responsibility for snow removal and landscaping,” Shiffman says.

Severa says homes located within an HOA tend to maintain their value better than those located in areas without a community association because the HOA monitors how well homes are being maintained.

HOA fees

Of course, grounds maintenance and recreational amenities do not come free. HOA fees vary by community and by what they cover.

“HOA fees are a critical factor in determining whether you want to live in a particular community or even if you can afford it,” says Sandesh Bilgi, a Realtor with Century 21 Affiliated in Chicago. “The HOA fee will be considered as part of your debt-to-income ratio. Depending on what is covered, particularly if you are buying a condo, the fee could be nearly as high as your mortgage payment.”

Bilgi says potential buyers need to carefully study what the HOA fee includes and compare that to what they would pay for similar services outside of an HOA.

“Typically, the HOA will cover maintenance of common grounds including lawn care and trash removal, along with snow removal,” Bilgi says. “Some also include exterior maintenance for individual homes and even some utilities such as water bills. Others have a fitness center, a swimming pool, tennis courts and walking trails. The important thing is to compare fees based on what is covered from one community to the next and how much you would pay on your own for these services.”

Bilgi says he recently worked with a client who considered buying a condo with a $600 monthly fee.

“The fee was higher because the building had a business center, a fitness center, a doorman and a grocery store for residents, but he realized he didn’t need those amenities,” Bilgi says. “Eventually he chose a building with a $300 monthly fee instead.”

Amenities can be a selling point for some buyers and can add value to a community even if not all residents use them.

HOA rules

While some buyers view HOA rules negatively, others say the regulations protect home values and the community for everyone.

“Most HOA rules are what I consider ‘good neighbor rules’ that help make everyone safe and comfortable,” Shiffman says. “Most people want to know about pet restrictions. Typically, pets are allowed or they are restricted just to a certain size or type to avoid having animals that are known to be aggressive.”

Bilgi says that rules sometimes restrict homeowners’ individuality, limiting their ability to make changes to their property or even to display their loyalty to their favorite sports team with a banner.

“If you are not a team player, you are likely to find living in an HOA annoying,” Bilgi says.

Beyond annoyances are rules that restrict the ability of residents to earn a living. Many HOAs have rules against home-based businesses and on parking commercial vehicles.

“It’s important to realize that anything that will impact your community, such as extra cars or noise generated by teaching piano lessons or parking an unsightly contractor van, can be prohibited by the HOA rules,” Shiffman says. “Buyers should not be lazy. They should read the documents before they buy so they know what they are getting into.”

Bilgi says people often skim over the fine print and then find out later that they cannot have the pet they want, cannot entertain after a certain time of night or establish a business. At that point the option is to give up on individual preferences or move.

Adjusting to an HOA

Severa recommends that homeowners get involved with their HOA on a committee that interests them or on the board of directors so they will have a voice in future decisions.

“Getting involved and finding neighbors who support your point of view can sometimes result in a reversal of a decision,” Severa says.

Bilgi says that homeowners can request a modification or amendment of rules, but that in many places they are unsuccessful.

“An HOA has power over residents to impose rules and collect fees,” Bilgi says. “That’s why it is so important to make sure you understand the rules and regulations before you buy.”

“The biggest consideration when it comes to choosing a home is whether you can live with someone else having certain controls over your property,” Severa says. “For some people the benefits of maintaining the look of the community and the amenities outweigh any drawbacks to living in an HOA.”