What to Know Before Building a Custom Home in a Gated Community

When prospective buyers comb through residential real estate listings, they often consider the neighborhood first. Every neighborhood has its pros and cons. Some have extensive infrastructure but are exposed to significant air pollution due to industry. Others have high property values but suffer from rising property crime rates. Hoping to protect themselves and the value of their homes from changes in their neighborhood, some home buyers opt to build in gated communities. In his article “What is the Meaning of a Gated Community?” for SF Gate, Dennis Hartman notes that living in a gated community might “increase safety” by reducing traffic and restricting access while “helping homes resist market trends and retain value over time.” For those unfamiliar, gated communities are small-scale, fully enclosed neighborhoods accessible only to residents and their approved guests. Residents and guests typically enter gated communities through a guard booth or an automatic gate controlled by a remote. Most gated communities include a couple dozen homes. However, some gated communities may feature only a select few estates while others boast hundreds of condominiums. In addition to safety and insulation from fluctuations in the housing market, gated communities may also offer residents a number of amenities. Though gated communities have existed in the US since 1850, interest in enclosed suburban neighborhoods exploded towards the end of the 20th century. During the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in gated communities has grown across the world. If you are one of many considering one of these neighborhoods, follow below to learn everything you need to know before building a custom home in a gated community.

An Introduction to Gated Communities in California

As mentioned above, interest in gated communities across the US exploded towards the end of the 20th century. As such, gated communities are far more common in newer residential developments than in older neighborhoods. According to the American Housing Survey from the US Census Bureau, there were an estimated 10,999,000 communities with “access secured with walls of fences” in 2015. At the time, the majority of gated communities were located in major metropolises in the West. In Houston, 26.7% were walled and 21.9% were access controlled while 17.8% of communities in Dallas, Texas were walled while 13.4% had controlled access. Los Angeles boasted similar numbers, with 18.2% walled and 11.7% access controlled. According to Keith C. Veal in his 2013 doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan, “gated communities are quickly becoming the fastest growing housing development in the United States.” Neighborhood associations like HOAs and coop boards have also been on the rise in the US over the last fifty years as residents seek a greater sense of order and community.

Today, the Greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas are home to some of the most extensive and elite gated communities in the United States. However, these prestigious neighborhoods represent only one type of gated community. Lifestyle and security zone communities are also common across the Golden State. Below, we outline the different types of gated communities in California, as well as pros and cons of building in a gated community.

Types of Gated Communities

From the 19th century through the late 20th century, gated communities were available solely to the very wealthy. Because of this, many Americans still associate gated communities with status and class. As part of a 2013 dissertation “The Gating of America: The Political and Social Consequences of Gated Communities on the Body Politic” for his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Michigan, Keith C. Veal notes that gated communities may still signal wealth but are no longer as exclusive as they once were. According to Veal, gated communities “have now become a credible option for mainstream, middle-class Americans.”

Today, there are three different types of gated communities that house residents across the US. It was researchers Edward Blakely and Mary Snyder who first identified and defined the three types in 1997 as part of a study on private neighborhoods. These include prestige or elite communities, lifestyle communities and security zone communities. While each differs from the next, Veal writes that all are either located in “the nation’s urban centers” or in “suburbia” and that each “privatizes space and government.” Follow below to learn more about each type.

Prestige or Elite Community

Gated communities began in the late 19th century as a means for wealthy residents -- such as celebrities and titans of industry -- to shield their private lives from the prying eyes of onlookers. Historically, such communities have been referred to as “top-fifth projects,” a term coined by researchers Edward Blakely and Mary Snyder. These types of control access residential neighborhoods can still be found across the United States -- particularly in Texas, California, New York, Washington DC and Connecticut -- and are referred to as prestige or elite communities. Today, prestige communities house athletes, actresses, congressmen, directors and other icons. Heavily guarded with strictly controlled entrances, these gated communities offer sanctuaries for the elite. Found outside major metropolises like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, New York City and the US Capitol, those who live in prestige gated communities typically prize aesthetics, privacy and security over communion with neighbors.

Elite Gated Communities in California

Many of the most exclusive prestige gated communities in the United States are located in California, with dozens found in the Greater Los Angeles Area alone. High income residents who purchase homes within elite gated communities often choose these neighborhoods to avoid the noise, crime and traffic of surrounding cities. Tanya Mohn writes in her article “America's Most Exclusive Gated Communities” for Forbes that “the California coast—with its ideal weather and density of wealth—is a bastion of first-class gated neighborhoods.” According to Mohn, “Hidden Hills and The Oaks, in the western foothills of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, are the cream of gated living,” though many are also located in Palo Alto and other parts of Silicon Valley.

What It’s Like to Live in LA’s Prestige Guard Gated Communities

Those who live in the Greater LA Area will likely be familiar with The Oaks and Hidden Hills, the latter of which is a fully incorporated city behind gates. An exclusive community in Calabasas featuring “a community center, tennis courts, and an Olympic size pool,” The Oaks is one of California’s most exclusive gated communities. Most of its fifty-five houses are priced between $2 and $3 million, though some reach above $6M. Far from the city centre of downtown Los Angeles, Hidden Hills is a far larger rural gated community with just under seven hundred homes. With rambling hills enclosed within its gates, this gated community located outside LA boasts a much wider selection of amenities including equestrian trails. Quoting California real estate agent Dana Olmes, Tanya Mohn writes that this residential community offers residents “‘a sense of normality…[because] once you get in there, you have no idea you are in L.A.’” Homes in Hidden Hills begin around $3.5M and reach as much as $13M.

In her article “An Introduction to LA's Private and Gated Neighborhoods” for Curbed LA, Bianca Barragan identifies Beverly Park, Malibu Colony, La Brea Terrace, Laughlin Park, Valley Oak Drive, Brentwood Country Estates, Brentwood Circle, Fremont Place, Oakmont Drive, The Summit, The Oaks, Hidden Hills, Bel Air Crest, Rolling Hills and Bradbury Estates as fifteen additional elite gated communities in Los Angeles. As time wears on, the number of prestige gated communities in LA and San Francisco may grow further. According to Mohn in her article for Forbes, the “overall growth [of prestige gated communities] shows no sign of slowing down,” especially in rural areas along the coast of California.

Lifestyle Community

The lifestyle community is the second type of gated community identified by Blakely and Snyder. Today, lifestyle communities are home primarily to residents aged 55+. In his 2013 University of Michigan doctorate dissertation, Keith C. Veal writes that “lifestyle communities are often gated and attract the ‘new leisure class.’” This new leisure class is “mostly made up of retirees” seeking leisure and support in a somewhat controlled, completely dependable environment. As such, lifestyle communities often “provide golf facilities and other activities centered on leisure pursuits” such as boating, bird watching, swimming, picnicking, hiking and community events. Country clubs are still quite common in 55+ lifestyle communities. Because residents of lifestyle communities are often older adults, these neighborhoods may also offer residents access to medical professionals in addition to security personnel, maintenance and other on-site staff.

In their entry “Types of gated communities” -- which was part of the larger publication Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science -- Canadian researchers Jill Grant and Lindsey Mittelsteadt write that lifestyle communities “hope to attract residents searching for identity, security, and a shared lifestyle with their neighbours.” Given this, security is often “secondary to the amenities offered in the community.” Over the last few decades, a number of 55+ lifestyle community chains have popped up across the US -- ranging from affordable to elite. Mittelsteadt and Grant write that as the US population ages, “catering to affluent seniors has become a lucrative business for developers.” Californians can find quite a few of these communities dotting the coast.

Security Zone Community

A third type of gated community, security zone communities differ significantly from lifestyle and prestige communities. In their paper “Types of gated communities,” Jill Grant of the School of Planning at Dalhousie University and Lindsey Mittelsteadt of the Department of Planning in the Municipality of Maple Ridge also define security zone communities. According to Grant and Mittelsteadt, “security zone communities close off public streets to nonresidents [and] reflect a fear of outsiders who disrupt neighbourhoods.”

While many prestige and lifestyle communities are gated from the onset as part of their initial development, “in security zones the residents themselves may lobby for and participate in erecting the barriers” due to a change in their community. These changes are typically related to rising crime rates in urban spaces. In security zone gated communities, Mittelsteadt and Grant note that “residents generally view gating their streets as a last resort to take back their community.” As such, barricades and secure entry and exit points erected around security zone communities “are not seen as an amenity, but rather a necessity.” Amenities shared by lifestyle and prestige communities -- such as a golf course, community pool or sports facilities -- are thus uncommon in security zone communities.

Amenities in Gated Communities

Homeowners who build or buy houses in gated communities obtain access to myriad amenities -- particularly those living in prestige or lifestyle communities. These amenities may include backup power facilities, community events, sports and fitness centers and restaurants. Amenities in gated communities might also include access to electricians, plumbers, landscapers and other maintenance personnel as well as security and medical professionals. Neighborhood watches are common in gated communities as well.

In her article “What Is a Gated Community? The Pros and Cons of Buying a Home Inside” for Realtor.com, Stephanie Booth elaborates. She writes that those who live in gated communities may “score a swimming pool, private park, kids’ playground, off-leash dog park, hiking trails, jogging and bike paths, exercise facility, community clubhouse, golf course, and/or tennis courts...along with [their] new home.” Though Booth notes that homeowners will “have to pay a monthly HOA fee  to cover these perks, having them all close by may be worth every extra penny.”

Prestige and Lifestyle Gated Community Amenities

In a March 2021 article for RisMedia, Paige Brown identifies five amenities those who build or buy in a gated community today can expect. She writes that lifestyle experiences, wellness facilities, exquisite dining and concierge services are all available to residents of estates in prestige gated communities. Brown notes that across California, prestige gated communities offer residents “resort-like wellness centers where residents can pamper themselves to no end” as well as “at least a few fine dining options.”

Some elite communities in rural areas “even boast their own private farms where they can harvest homegrown ingredients for their farm-to-table restaurants.” Lastly, Brown writes that concierge services are common in prestige and lifestyle gated communities where access to the neighborhood is controlled. According to Brown, “whether you need to arrange transportation, have groceries delivered or even a place to board your pets, there’s often a service for just about every need that a resident may have.”

Pros and Cons of Living in a Gated Community in California

The pros and cons of living in a gated community in California are subjective and may differ depending on the needs and priorities of each prospective or current resident. For example, restricted access might be considered a positive for some residents and an inconvenience for others. Additionally, aesthetics and activities controlled by a homeowners association could be a pro for some and a con for others. Below, we outline each of the pros and cons of living in a gated community.

Positives of Living in a Gated Community

Homeowners often identify the pros of living in a gated community as less traffic, access to amenities, restricted entry, peace of mind and a well-maintained neighborhood. Because access to gated communities is generally restricted either by an electronic entryway or by a security guard, there is usually less foot and vehicle traffic within gated communities. This can make the community safer for children and seniors enjoying amenities such as those outlined above. Restricted access can also prevent solicitors and unwanted guests from entering the community, protecting residents from both uncomfortable and unsafe interactions.

Gated communities also offer residents a well-maintained -- often manicured -- neighborhood in addition to boosted security. According to Angela Yaun of Day Realty Group in a 2017 article “Thinking Of A Gated Community? Seven Things To Consider First” for Forbes from the Forbes Business Council, “if you purchase a home within a gated community, the HOA dues will be higher, but it's worth it because your property value will increase.” This is because “HOAs have to pay for the roads within the community, along with maintaining the ‘look’ of the subdivision.” Unlike non-gated communities, homeowners in gated communities will not have to worry about one house on the block falling into disrepair and hurting the rest of the community’s home values.

Popularity of Gated Communities in a Post-Pandemic World

Recently, restricted access has posed a new benefit for homeowners in gated communities. Controlled access and resident accountability -- two key characteristics of gated communities -- became even more attractive during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this trend occurred in the US, it spread to other countries like China as well. A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Hong Kong found that interest in controlled access communities spiked in Beijing last year. Ling Li, Wayne Xinwei Wan and Shenjing He write that “a large-scale household survey in Beijing suggests that residents commonly recognise the effectiveness of GCs in security control and show a strong preference for GCs over open communities after the pandemic.” Though the researchers write that “there is a lack of direct evidence of reduced COVID-19 risk in GCs…[because] rigid pandemic control measures were organized at the community level,” GCs are perceived as safer and healthier in our post-pandemic world.

Negatives of Living in a Gated Community

Of course, there are some perceived negatives of living in a gated community. For example -- according to Blakley, Snyder and Veal -- some studies argue that gated communities are not inherently safer, more cohesive or better protected from fluctuations in the housing market than non-gated communities. Other cons of living in a gated community could include restricted emergency access, unwanted homogeneity and limited individual freedoms. First, electronically controlled entryways could prevent emergency services -- e.g. police, paramedics, concierge doctors or fire department personnel -- from easily accessing the property. Secondly, established gated communities are typically slow to change and rarely grow. This could mean a financially, culturally, ethnically or otherwise homogeneous community that might disappoint residents who prefer a more diverse environment. Lastly, joining a gated community means being subject to HOA rules -- for better and/or for worse.

In a 2017 article “Thinking Of A Gated Community? Seven Things To Consider First” for Forbes from the Forbes Business Council, Lisa Fettner writes that while “gated communities offer safety and security,” they often do so “at the expense of personal privacy and control,” which could be an issue for some. Homeowners associations often impose and enforce “rules ranging from home color restrictions to car parking requirements.” In the same article, Samen Steinbarth notes that HOA rules may restrict “visitors, tenants, gatherings, exterior paint color, siding, yard, fencing” and more. How one uses his or her property is strictly regulated by the HOA, meaning “limited opportunity for financial returns” if one has planned to renovate their property or market it as a rental.

Key Factors to Picking the Perfect Gated Community for Your Custom Home

There are many factors to consider when choosing the right gated community in which to build your new custom home. Homeowners must first determine which elements are most important to them. Then, they must examine the neighborhood carefully. Prospective homeowners must analyze the location, identifying available off-site amenities like grocers, schools and restaurants as well as crime rates and infrastructure. They must also consider the land upon which they are able to build and how much square footage will be alloted to them.

Next, they should consider the community’s internal amenities, aesthetic appeal and neighborhood feel. Security of and access to each gated community should also be considered. Talking to residents of each community can help prospective buyers and/or builders determine if the community in question is right for them. After researching the surrounding area, homeowners should pore over each community’s HOA rules, as these will govern their daily lives and affect their property’s value over time.

Understanding the Influence of a Gated Community’s HOA

In her article “Should I Buy a Home in a Gated Community?” for NOLO, Ilona Bray, J.D. notes that the lives of those who live in gated communities will definitely be “restricted by a community association.” As mentioned above, the regulations imposed by a homeowners association could be seen as positives for the community. However, others might find these rules too aggressive and restrictive. Bray writes that “having community-wide aesthetic standards, limits on pets, and a board to make sure common areas are maintained can make your life more predictable and easy, and keep up property values.” However, these restrictions can also be a thorn in one’s side, “particularly if your life circumstances change.” Bray outlines several hypothetical situations in her article.

First, she questions what might happen if a resident were to “marry someone who wants to move in but has a dog over the poundage limit.” Next, she questions what might happen if “you decide it’s time to take a year sabbatical but can’t rent out your place in the meantime due to community prohibitions.” Depending on their reach and sphere of control, HOAs could even deny resident-approved guests access to community facilities or bar guests they deem undesirable from entering the neighborhood at all. Violation of these decisions could incur financial penalties against the homeowner. While HOAs provide homeowners with peace of mind and reliable sameness, they can inhibit one’s ability to grow and change. As such, Bray recommends that homeowners “read the governing documents carefully...before finalizing your purchase of any home subject to a community association.”

Five Tips for Building a Custom Home in a Gated Community

For the many reasons outlined above, building a custom home in a gated community can be a complicated process. Homeowners are typically best served by building a custom home in a newly planned development rather than trying to build in an established community. In our recent post “Building in a Subdivision Vs. Building on Undeveloped Land,” we explain in detail what homeowners might expect when building a custom home in a new development. Much of this information applies equally to newly planned gated communities, as most will be built in subdivisions.

Benefits of building a custom home in a gated community include guaranteed access to the site, existing utilities hook-ups, HOA involvement -- which could also be a negative -- and partnerships with experienced contractors. On the other hand, building a custom home in a new gated community could mean putting up with constant construction as other homes in the neighborhood are also built. It might also mean limitations on customizations and restrictions regarding structural square footage and lot size. Before you sign on with a design-build team to construct your custom home in a gated community, read our tips below.

#1 Read Through All Restrictions

First, read through all rules, regulations and restrictions outlined by the HOA, developer and by the city or state government. Each of these will impact where you can build, how large your home must be, how many structures you can build, what style of home you can build and so much more. They may also restrict use of your property, so be sure to read through every rule before planning to use your home as a rental or other investment property. Prospective homeowners can ask the HOA and developer for access to these documents and can request information about zoning and other subdivision details through their local permitting office.

#2 Figure Out the Community’s Finances

Of course, homeowners should determine how much they will be required to pay in community fees -- e.g. those to the HOA -- before building in a gated community. However, they should also look into the finances of the community as a whole and how the HOA handles delinquencies. For example, homeowners should investigate what happens when other community members default on their fees. Homeowners should discuss with their real estate agent, community developers, HOA members and residents how financially healthy the neighborhood is.

They should also ask residents how the homeowners association applies fees and if they do so efficiently and appropriately or appear to take advantage of residents. To this end, Kathleen Peddicord of U.S. News recommends that homeowners “ask how much is in the reserve account” in her article “10 Tips for Buying a Home in a Gated Community.” Peddicord writes that this is significant “because you want to make sure the community has enough held in reserve to be able to afford major repairs or purchases.”

#3 Make Sure the Community is Well-Maintained

As mentioned above, HOAs will generally use dues from residents to maintain the community, provide security and more. However, some homeowners associations neglect their gated communities despite investment from residents. Before building a custom home in a gated community, prospective residents should ensure that the HOA actually takes care of its community. Commitment by residents to the appearance, health and safety of their neighborhood is also vital to preserving a thriving community.

#4 Review the Community’s Security Protocol

In the “cons” section of this post, we noted that some gated communities inadvertently restrict access to emergency services while others unfairly restrict access to guests and yet others fail to keep criminals from entering. Before building your custom home in a gated community, ask to review the community’s security protocol. Clarify who will be allowed into the estate, when visitors might be restricted and how emergency services are given access. Ask if there is an active neighborhood watch, security tower or electronically controlled entrance. Question how deliveries are received and whether solicitors are allowed to enter the premises.

#5 Talk to Current Residents

Whether you are considering building a custom home in a prestige gated community or lifestyle gated community, speaking with current residents can help either cement or reverse your decision. In her U.S. News article “10 Tips for Buying a Home in a Gated Community,” Kathleen Peddicord writes “your satisfaction with daily life in your community is going to be heavily influenced by how well the community is run.” Finding out “if there is any owner dissatisfaction or unrest with the vigilance committee, the administrator, the developer or among owners” can help prospective homeowners avoid future disasters.

Building Your Custom Home in a Gated Community with Element

No matter where one lives, building a custom home can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. Building a custom home in a gated community could be even more complex, as homeowners associations, developers and local zoning laws may restrict certain customizations. Because building a custom home in a gated community requires knowledge of the neighborhood’s rules as well as government guidelines, hiring an experienced local design-build firm is vital. Element Homes is one of California’s premier design-build firms, having constructed homes all along the coast. From the San Francisco Bay Area to the Greater LA Area, Element’s team has designed and built homes in all types of neighborhoods, communities and climates. To learn more about building your custom home in a gated community with Element, contact our team here.

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