What you guys are saying makes a lot of sense. I grew up in a non-HOA area and never had the problems that HOA's supposedly prevent (besides minor annoyances) but I can see how owning a home in an area that has those problems would drive you towards a HOA. Obviously, a condo HOA is necessary since the building itself is not the responsibility of individual owners although it creates a huge problem with the alignment of incentives in buildings that are heavily rented (which is a big deal around here right now since a lot of people opted to rent their units and wait for prices to recover) since the actual residents have very little sway over the condo board.
The HOA horror stories still scare me though. Obviously there are some bad-apple HOAs, but you are giving up a lot of legal rights to own something governed by one (since everything's a civil matter and you can be on the hook for the HOA's legal fees if a case doesn't go in your favor).
Also, in some areas it can be pretty hard to avoid HOAs. If the municipality put in a lot of requirements on developers, and the town is one that really built up in the last 50-60 years, there may be very few properties not covered by a HOA.