5 Tips For Mastering A Homeowners Association

Over 30 million Americans lived in communities with a homeowners association (HOA) in 2012, according to the Community Associations Institute (CAI). Even though 92 percent of HOA residents surveyed by the CAI said they were "satisfied or neutral" with their experience, living in a community with a homeowners association may not be for everyone.

"Oftentimes, (homebuyers) don't ask enough questions in advance and find themselves surprised by restrictions on what they can do," says Kelly Richardson, a managing partner of Richardson Harman Ober PC, a Pasadena, Calif.-based law firm that regularly represents HOAs.

Read: Watch out: What's the HOA's liability in the death of Trayvon Martin?

If you're buying a home with an association linked to it, it's important to do your due diligence before joining an HOA. Here are five tips to help you along the way:

5 homeowners-association tips

No. 1: Understand the financial costs. Be extra careful when moving into a condo or community that is managed by a homeowners association, warns Eric D. Koster, a partner at Kurzman Eisenberg Corbin & Lever, LLP in White Plains, N.Y.

"In many cases, developers artificially cap common fees in new condos to make their units more attractive to buyers. When the developer exits the picture, common charges jump dramatically when the homeowner association has to pay market price for services."

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No. 2: Read key documents carefully. Pets, hot tubs and even wind chimes are at the top of the list of items you may not be able to have in a planned community.

"Homeowners associations are a shared economy," says Alan I. Schimmel, a partner with the Schimmel & Parks law firm in Sherman Oaks, Calif., which regularly handles HOA issues, "so you need, beforehand, to delve into key documents that include the board records and CC&Rs."