By: Lisa Johnson Mandell

So you’re searching for a home in your price range, and you finally find one that has all the bells and whistles your heart desires. The only problem is, there’s a little thing called HOA fees attached. So what exactly are HOA fees, and what do you get for laying out all that extra cash?

First things first: HOA is an abbreviation for “homeowners association,” which applies to the owners of condos, townhouses, or freestanding homes in a planned community. The fee, which is usually charged monthly, goes to maintain the common areas of that community.

“Because multiple parties live in the same building or complex, all residents must be equally responsible for maintaining the common areas such as landscaping, elevators, swimming pools, clubhouses, parking garages, fitness rooms, sidewalks, security gates, roofing, and building exteriors,” says finance expert Amy Fontanelle. HOA fees also include insurance payments to cover those common areas.

Sure, homeowners already taking on a mortgage may hate coughing up more money for HOA dues. But they actually let you off the hook for a ton of home maintenance work. So before you start kvetching, consider all that HOA fees can do for you.

How much are HOA fees?

For a typical single-family home, HOA fees can cost homeowners around $200 to $300 per month, although they will be lower or much higher depending on the size of your unit and the amenities.

To give you an idea of the range of HOA fees, a 1,000-square-foot condo in Des Moines, IA, with no pool, spa, community room, or gym in the community has an HOA fee of $100 per month, which covers utilities, landscaping, and snow removal.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Hollywood’s fancy Sierra Towers condo building, which is filled to the brim with amenities like 24-hour concierge service and valet parking. They charge residents of a 3,400-square-foot condo about $4,000 per month in HOA fees. Suddenly that $250 monthly fee you’re considering feels a bit more reasonable, doesn’t it?

What is an HOA reserve fund?

HOA fees are usually divided into two parts: One portion goes toward monthly expenses, and the remaining money goes into a reserve fund, to save for long-term repairs and replacements such as roofs, plumbing, and exterior paint. Reserve funds also cover emergency expenses that arise when natural disasters, vandals, or just the unavoidable wear and tear strike.

What is an assessment?

Be aware that when your community is hit with extreme maintenance expenses—like a flood in the underground parking lot due to a broken water heater or a pipe bursting—homeowners insurance will cover some of it, but whatever’s left will have to be paid by your HOA.

Typically in these cases the HOA will tap the reserve fund, which may become depleted as a result. As a result, your HOA board may require you and your fellow homeowners in the community to pay a special assessment bill above and beyond your monthly HOA fee. Luckily, though, these assessments are typically temporary until the reserve is back up to a comfortable level.

What happens if I can’t pay the HOA fees?

Rest assured that most lending institutions take the HOA fee into consideration when they write up your mortgage. In other words, they evaluate your monthly income compared with your monthly expenses, and they won’t make a loan on the desired property unless they feel you can safely cover everything: your mortgage payment, taxes, and HOA fees.

But hey, life happens. If you lose your job or are unable to pay your HOA fees, you might be able to work something out with the HOA board. Be sure to talk to it before you miss even one payment. If you fall too far behind, the consequences could be the same as if you fail to make your mortgage payments. Bob Tankel, a Florida attorney specializing in HOA law, says you could be evicted or, in extreme instances, the board has the right to foreclose on your property.

The ins and outs of your HOA fees and what they cover in your new community will be spelled out in the covenants, conditions, and restrictions. Tankel suggests reading your CC&Rs carefully before you even buy your condo, and referring to it frequently once you move in so you’ll always know what to expect.