If you own a home in the DC Metro Area, especially out in the suburbs, chances are you’ve had some experience with a Home Owners’ Association (HOA) and/or Condo association. There are as many different opinions about these associations as there are people living in them. Some see them as a necessary evil, some see them as a great community asset, and some don’t have strong opinions either way. Understanding the difference between the two and then discussing the pros and cons with your realtor will help you decide if it’s something you can and want to live with or something you’d rather not encounter.
Condo associations and HOAs differ in the scope of what they cover. As every property is different and every HOA and condo association has different rules, it would be wrong to give blanketed statements about what each covers definitively. Generally speaking, an HOA is a broader, community association. They usually handle things like community maintenance, amenities, and general guidelines for home appearances – exterior paint colors, lawn up-keep, etc. A condo association generally covers more specific areas. For example, my home did not come with a fireplace. When my husband and I were looking into adding a gas fireplace, we discovered that we’d have to cut a hole in the side of our house for the gas to vent out. Because we have a condo association, we don’t “own” the outside of our home and would have to get approval to make that change. Condo associations might also cover such things as trash removal and water and sewer. You also probably don’t “own” your yard if you have a condo association, so your lawn maintenance may also be covered.
When you’re looking into buying a home with one or both of these associations, the associations are required to give you their documents to review with adequate time to review them before you make a decision. As a broad overview, some of the pros of being in an HOA include community appearance, low maintenance, access to recreational amenities, and community mediation. Regulating community appearance means that your property value is likely to be higher than it would be without an HOA because there are consequences for not keeping up with the home’s appearance. If your neighbor decides to not cut his grass for three weeks, he will likely be fined. It works both ways, of course, so you could be fined as well for not keeping up with your home’s appearance, but as a responsible homeowner, it is likely that you will do your part and a little extra reassurance that your neighbor will do his doesn’t hurt. And if you do have a problem with the way a neighbor is behaving – excessive noise, not keeping his property up to community standards, etc. – all you have to do is go to your HOA and let them know. They will take care of making sure the proper steps are taken so that all rules are followed. This community mediation is invaluable to someone who may not have a friendly relationship with the neighbors or is just unsure about how to handle a specific concern. Maintenance of the community appearance and access to community amenities are also a big pro. Community areas such as dog parks, playgrounds, pools, trails, and parks are all maintained by the HOA. Part of your fee goes towards keeping areas beautiful and safe, and you get to enjoy them without worrying about taking care of them.
That being said, HOA and condo associations aren’t for everyone. Some people feel like it’s a bit “big brother”-ish to have these associations always looking over their shoulders. You may feel that if you want to paint your house bright pink, you should have every right to do that – after all, you are paying the property taxes. In that case, your realtor would probably advise you against buying in a community with one of these associations. There are various other concerns with buying into an association, but many times they are specific concerns, such as if you’re allowed to have a grill on your balcony or what kind of curtains you’re allowed to have hanging in your windows. You’ll want to review your association documents in detail and go over them with your realtor if there’s anything that concerns you or you don’t understand. Once you sign that you have accepted the terms, it will likely be too late to complain about specific rules. Think about your day-to-day life and decide whether or not these associations will be an asset or not for your specific situation.