Mapgirl has another interesting post lately about HOAs. [She's had a lot of interesting things lately. Check her out.]
When we were planning on buying here in Austin, we knew where Andrew was going to be working, so one of our big criteria was short commute times. In the areas fairly nearby his office, it's hard to find a house that doesn't have a neighborhood HOA. Heck, not too many years ago, our area was the total boondocks, so it's hard to find a house over 10 years old, even.
I am very much a "don't tell me what to do" hands-off kind of person, so as you can imagine, I hold most HOA stuff in contempt. It took quite a bit of looking, but we managed to find a house that we loved in a older neighborhood that was a conglomeration of multiple [like, 7 or 8] pre-existing HOAs. There are so many grandfathered provisions and other assorted goofiness because of this that the HOA here is voluntary dues, and has no teeth whatsoever.
So, when we painted our house and fence and added the multilevel deck in the back, etc, we didn't have to submit plans to an HOA for approval. We don't get any "helpful tips from the committee" postcards dropped in our mailbox. I know some people really like their HOAs and "keeps the house values up" and all that jazz, but I prefer our freedom. [And our housing value is doing just fine.]
Does it mean that one of my neighbors could start raising 100 fighting roosters in their backyard? Well, possibly. But you'd be amazed how people tend to not do those sorts of things, even without the Threat of HOA hanging over their heads.