A businessman's hand placing a house model on a wooden blocks spelling 'HOA'

For homebuyers considering an active adult community, it's important to look at the rules and fees established by the HOA.

I’m going to start this by acknowledging the obvious: Homeowners’ associations (HOA) have a bad rap and, sometimes, it's deserved. They charge fees on a regular basis, and who wants another bill to pay? To many, they’re also emblematic of an overly-bureaucratic frame of mind, seeking to control everything—right down to the bulbs you use in your external lighting. Hardly a week goes by that, somewhere in the country, there isn’t an article about an HOA harassing a homeowner for a seemingly minor violation of an absurd rule.

Thankfully, these kinds of stories are newsworthy primarily because they represent circumstances far outside the norm. HOA’s are not inherently evil or intent on making your life miserable. In this article, let's break down some of these myths that have given HOAs a bad reputation and present a clear-eyed view of how they serve the communities they represent.

What Does an HOA Do?

The HOA is not some board of overseers from outside the community intent on policing every detail of your home. Quite to the contrary, the HOA is you and your neighbors chipping in to keep the community in good shape and make improvements.

An HOA is established with a Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&R) document, also known as a “governing document”. This is a legal document you should review, and if you have any questions, you should pose them to your agent or the board itself. While much of it is boilerplate, establishing the fundamentals of governance, it also contains very important bits of information such as the structure of the board, the timing of elections, and the rules and regulations specific to the community. The format and structure of this document can vary due to differences in state laws, but this holds generally true for all areas of the country.

It will also contain key information regarding payments and what services are provided by the HOA. The HOA collects dues, not to sit on a huge cash reserve, but to pay for these services. In smaller communities, these fees pay for things like pool cleaning, garbage collection, and landscaping while in large communities these funds are also used to maintain amenity centers and pay the staff. Prudent HOAs usually maintain a cash reserve, for things like emergency maintenance or storm cleanup. Keep up with your HOA, so you can stay ahead of the curve on any annual fee increases.

These funds are administered by the HOA’s board. At new communities, before there are enough representatives, the board will usually be staffed by the builder, and as new homeowners move in, they’ll take over governance of their community. In almost all cases, the board is elected by fellow homeowners, often on an annual basis. Typically, you’ll find a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, along with a number of other committee or appointed positions that handle specific tasks or functions. Meetings are open to the public and, if you’re new to the community, this is a great way to meet active residents in your community.

How Do I Join My Active Adult Community HOA?

This one is simple, you become a member of the HOA by buying a home in the community. Some HOAs require an upfront or “initiation” payment. This is especially true in much larger communities with expansive amenities. Think of it like joining a country club. So long as you keep up with your payments and remain a member in good standing, you’ll be a member of the HOA and eligible to vote in elections and run for office yourself.

If you find yourself struggling to make a payment, it's best to contact the HOA board to explain the situation. Once again, the vast majority of them are not tyrants and will endeavor to work something out. Falling far behind in payments can lead to legal action as, by buying a house in the community, you’re entering into a contract to pay those fees. 

Once you’re a member, your level of participation is up to you. You could pay your dues on time and never attend a meeting and be perfectly happy in your new neighborhood. Or, if you want to get more involved with your neighbors and your community, you could attend the meetings. Here, you’ll have an inside look at the decision-making process, and you can gain insight into exactly how your dues are being spent. Don’t like the way something is being run? You can speak to your neighbors and board members to explain your point of view on an issue. Or, you can run for a board position and have a direct vote in board decisions.

How Do You Contact the HOA of an Active Adult Community?

This is a good question to ask your real estate agent before purchasing a home in a 55+ community. They are the local experts and may have even sold a home to an HOA board member in that neighborhood. The clubhouse or amenity center is also a good place to start looking for information. Even the most modest communities often have a bulletin board that almost always will display notices and contact info for the board.

You should consider reaching out to the HOA before buying a home, and you should definitely get in contact after you’ve done so. Those who volunteer their time serving on an HOA board are often the most enthusiastic members of the community, and they're eager to welcome new homeowners. Additionally, if you’re experiencing a problem with snow-plowing, for instance, a friendly relationship with board number is a good thing to have to get the problem addressed in a timely fashion.

Communities With Low HOA Fees

While HOA fees at some of the most lavish communities can definitely add to your monthly expenses, there's an abundance of communities that offer their residents good amenities with a low HOA fee. Here are a few examples:

Myrtle Trace - Conway, SC

Be sure to check this one out if the golf courses and white-sand beaches of Myrtle Beach are high on your list. Myrtle Trace is just a short drive to the west of the coast, and it offers amenities, like a clubhouse, an outdoor pool, and loads of social clubs, for a reasonable monthly HOA fee.

Venetian Falls - Venice, FL

If the Golf Coast is more your speed, Venetian Falls is a must-see. This community of 700 single-family homes boasts a 16,000-square-foot clubhouse with a state-of-the-art fitness center, a resort-style pool, and a 9-hole putting green, among its many amenities. Modest HOA fees and a low cost of living make this a standout in the area.

Palm Cay - Ocala, FL

Those looking for a winter home or those who enjoy seeing the country in their RV will find a lot to love at Palm Cay. In addition to low-HOA fees, the community offers very competitively priced homes as well as RV parking. Dubbed ‘The Oasis,’ this community’s homey clubhouse is a gathering place for residents looking to hit the tennis court or socialize over a game of cards.

Saddlebrook Farms - Grayslake, IL

For Chicagoland residents, trips to a lakehouse in Wisconsin or Michigan are a cherished summer tradition. Saddlebrook Farms offers residents this experience in Lake County, Illinois. Due to a unique tax and fee structure, monthly costs as this lakeside community are quite low, making it an unusually good value in Illinois.

Highland Lakes - Leesburg, FL

Back in Central Florida, we find another community that excels in the “bang-for-buck” category. Check out the photos on the community page for a glimpse of everything this community has to offer, from an indoor pool and a full woodshop to its own driving range and fishing lake. Like all of these communities, homebuyers can expect very manageable HOA fees.

Heritage Lake - New Port Richey, FL

For many, there’s a sweet spot of being close enough to a big city to drop in for an afternoon but not so close as to experience all of the hassle and traffic. Heritage Lake is a great example of such a community. This community and its many amenities are well-situated in the natural environment, giving it a tranquil feeling in tune with nature but not overrun by it. As with every community we’ve highlighted, the HOA operates efficiently, leading to a lower cost of living for Heritage Lake residents.