Are HOA's bad? No. Do homeowners sometimes think that? Yes. When a homeowner first purchases a new home, they are typically overzealous thinking about their new lives in their new home. Much of a purchase decision depends on things that have nothing to do with the home itself; such as, neighbors, community surroundings, location, school district, appearance of the neighborhood, lifestyle activities, and available association amenities. You know what isn't normally on a new homeowner's mind at a new home purchase? It is the homeowners association and what it entails. I would recommend doing your research prior to purchase, but if not, at least come back to it and take time to read through all associated documents.
So, why do homeowners sometimes think that HOA's are bad? In my twenty years of HOA's, it is almost always something to do with restriction enforcement (telling the homeowner what they can or cannot do) or collections (forcing additional fees or litigation on someone for not paying their assessments). These are two necessary obligations of the Association and are not something the management company has arbitrary reasoning on.
Some of the most high-in-demand developments are that way because of consistent restriction enforcement. Sure, nobody likes to get one of the "love-letters" in the mail or by electronic notification. It is easy to immediately jump to conclusions, thinking the association has no right to "tell me what to do". Nobody likes that. Remember that a covenant (i.e. Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) is a contract that you, as a new homeowner/association member, agree to by purchase of a lot or home. It's important to learn the requirements of each restriction and the authority of association enforcement. Associations have certain rights with regards to achieving compliance to those restrictions. In addition, each state has a set of property statutes that assist in such governance. No Association has intentions of making someone upset. It is sometimes an unfortunate side affect of the solution and comes natural for anyone.
Assessments are the obligation of each owner to pay. I've had many calls from owners in the past where they did not receive a statement or a notice to pay. While that is very unfortunate, and I could write a book on causes, it does not take away the payment responsibility. Assessments are the lifeblood of association operations. Board members have a duty to collect and are forced to make hard decisions when it comes to that.
What HOA management companies don't want you to know - It's not that they are trying to hide something from homeowners. That is not the case. It is that homeowners are allowed certain variances for things as described in its dedicatory instruments. Reasonable considerations are important in every situation. Not everything is black and white. It would be so much easier if it was. I am not an attorney but have been involved in litigation between the homeowner and the association where there was victory on both sides; the homeowner won or the homeowner lost.
As an example - I managed an association that had a very clear restriction against artificial landscaping. One of the homeowners who lived in the community decided to apply for a very large landscaping makeover, and it passed the architectural committee's written approval. All went well and the homeowner installed their landscaping. Later on, one of the Board members noticed that there was a small section of artificial turf that was visible to a greenway near the common areas of the association. This was not on the application. The Board of Directors wanted to enforce their restriction and we proceeded with the standard enforcement actions. Fast forward to three or four months later, lots of legal correspondence, and both parties settled, allowing the grass to remain realizing that the amount of artificial grass was not enough to be considered a reasonable restriction.
As the new years come and go and dedicatory instruments evolve to adapt to our changing world, it's is always good for Board member to take a logical approach to enforcement. Consistency is the best policy but always know that a homeowner has a right to fight back an association's actions towards them. Lawsuits cost both parties a lot of money and occasionally, a mediator is a better route. At the end of the day, the Association is lead by a Board of volunteers who care about their community. As a homeowner, it is your obligation to know and understand what you are a member of so that there is less confusion if something like a violation enforcement comes up. Management companies are hired by the Board of Directors and are in an agreement with the Association to perform certain tasks. The management company doesn't make the rules, they are hired to help.