Throughout our many of years of living in different houses, we've consistently lived with the normal restrictions that come with suburbia and/or city living. I've been thinking more about this topic since we're in the process of making a move to the country.
As far as those restrictions go, first, we have always lived in cities that enforce fairly rigid city ordinances, which is a good thing for the most part. Second, a few houses we've lived in have been under even more rigid drive-by inspection wardens attached to the local Home-Owner's Association (HOA). Sometimes this can be good, sometimes this can be bad.
I do think HOA's and their rules have a proper place in society; for those neighborhoods with homes built rather close together and for those who wish to share communal services that were formerly related to a broad-based country-club atmosphere, it's a good thing.
HOA's are important for those who value and desire neighborhood amenities designed only for those who "belong" and pay for the rights to enjoy them. In those terms, HOA's are beneficial and can bring a few luxuries within neighborhood boundaries. Having pools, parks, tennis courts, walking trails, beautiful entrances and other such shared amenities might be exactly what a home-owner is looking for along with their residence.
Also, knowing that neighbors cannot paint their house purple or hot pink might be a good thing to keep in check by the association "police." If you are acquainted with my youngest daughter, Stefanie, this might be a safe-guard from having the hot pink and black house across the street! Truly, as a university studied artist myself, I am all for expressing yourself artistically, but sometimes we don't want to pull into a driveway of our home with a sizable mortgage and have it situated next door to animal bones strung from the branches of a neighbor's tree. An association is sort of like a legal agreement to keep the canvas free from shocking images.
Best part about HOA's when you buy a house is that you must sign papers proving you understand they are present and that you have a copy of their by-laws. You must agree to live by their standards upon buying a house with such an association. Simultaneously, it's voluntary, yet required.
In my interpretation, I see an HOA with a role to mainly ensure the neighborhood is consistent in appearance and to reduce worry that the person next door will do something questionable to their property which would bring down overall property values. Living in close proximity to a neighbor is kind of like being in a village, everyone needs to be on the same page, well, if not on the same page, everyone will have at least read the same book (Association By-Laws) so the line of thinking is guided toward a deeper sense of community.
Many people will gladly pay their association dues to enjoy the luxury of living in a place where everyone has written expectations for their property. When you have a neighbor living twelve paces from your own house, it can be a good thing to have "agreements."
At times, I've gladly been a part of this process as a resident and have enjoyed the amenities our dues have been paid to maintain so that we adults and the kids (when younger) could savor a moment out of the confines of our front and backyard, while still being close to home.
In the Houston area, we now have neighborhoods with unbelievable HOA's that maintain their own personal water parks, airplane strips, and other extravagant amenities. If someone is willing to pay, it's probably available.
So, HOA's can mean big business. And if you don't pay your HOA, many of them have it written in their contract that they can essentially confiscate your property. It's happened here in Houston and it is shocking.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, there are impotent HOA's that are alive and kicking in name only. Just because a neighborhood has an "HOA" attached to it doesn't mean they will be concerned with your neighbor's carnival-style paint job or worried about the deteriorating "park around the corner with waist high weeds...the level of attention your association gives to your little community may directly depend on the amount of your yearly dues and on whether or not the management of the association is effective.
With funds lacking, there is essentially nothing an HOA can do, other than pay for postage to mail out the bill for yearly dues. Additionally, in my years of being in the real estate profession and seeing all of these entities first-hand, I witnessed some associations that are shockingly run by white-collar "criminals" who take money from residents and do nothing to enforce written association rules or to use the funds properly. Then, there are associations that employ subjective enforcement...good friends suddenly are afforded a lopsided perspective.
Conversely, I've seen several associations manage their resources in an expert manner to provide luxurious and incredible amenities for residents paying the required fees to live under the domain of the association.
I guess I fee that people buying houses should truly investigate the home-owner's association that is attached to the purchase of their home. Just because one is present doesn't mean it is worthwhile or in good financial standing. If they are managing resident's funds improperly, and are getting ample funds to do the job, then the neighborhood will clearly start to go into decline, especially if the neighborhood is dependent on the HOA to maintain chunks of mingled property.
I've seen gated-communities that based marketing of their homes upon the fancy iron gates that surround their neighborhood with a little gate shack and a non-commissioned guard inside to check all entries with a clipboard in hand. After an HOA starts to go downhill, the gate shack is abandoned and the rusted, bent gates are propped open, perpetually, and soon become an eyesore. After our recession, many of these associations could not get money from the residents, so they could not continue to operate on a full-steam basis. Something had to give in...usually manning the gates are the first item to disappear or reduced hours of manning the gates becomes a given.
Here, at our current home, we have a so-so HOA. We don't have any spectacular amenities other than an old neighborhood pool and a brick-framed sign with the neighborhood's name on it at the entrance, which sits on a plat of grass rarely kept manicured. Our dues are rather low, about $129. per year, not bad, so we can't expect jaw-dropping landscaping throughout the commons areas, and we can't expect the rules to be enforced with much vigor when meager incentive is involved for those who are supposed to be knowledgeable about and enforcing the rules. But, we have just a touch of rule to keep the neighborhood under some level of consistency.
For most neighborhoods with an HOA, the residents are accustomed to varying shades of Real-Estate-Blah-Beige for exterior paint color. As for us, the HOA is still working well enough to keep the Shade-Tree-Mechanic from doing business on his front lawn. Geez, this would have put my dad out of business when we were growing up...it's a good thing that we didn't really know too much about HOA's back then.
Even though, today, we're not supposed to have chickens in our backyard...but our HOA is partially a "token" HOA. It's not been a problem.
It will be weird to sell our house in the city and to move to the country to find ourselves without a yearly bill for association dues. I'm already thinking about how we can spend that $129. per year and celebrate our newfound freedom.