If you're not a fan of HOA fees, talk to your lender about how much home you can afford wthout these fees? You may be able to buy a small single family home within your price range....esecially with the inventory on the market. Good luck! It's a great time to buy!
Be very careful going into an underfunded HOA. Sometimes when fee's are high it could be related to a roof or siding assessment either coming or already assessed. Make sure you get copies of all the minutes and dont be afraid to highlight and ask alot of questions to the HOA or listing agent. Even then HOA's can be deceptive and hard to work with, especially when there is litigation pending. $450-$1300 seems high to me I think $275-$475 is more realistic.
Most HOA's cover the entire exterior including roof. Most HOA's cover hazard insurance.
If you do not like to garden and/or the upkeep the HOA expense associated with amenities you seek such as pool, clubhouse, tennis courts makes sense.
Walnut Creek is a very popular area and has easy access to the Bart and freeways. Plus overall Walnut Creek retains its value fairly well.
As Mansur said, the fees are based on the different services the HOA provides. For example, I live in the Keys off of Civic. My HOA bill is around $500/mo. But that includes servicing the 3 pools, 4 tennis courts, the clubhouse, the common grounds, the common heating and water bills that the other 792 units use. Also that includes a discounted cable rate for all the units (I think it is $16.00/mo for all the cable channels, not including HBO, Showtime, etc, but the normal rate for a house would be much higher). And also the PG&E for the unit is based on the unit's square footage. They can't the monthly bill for the building and divide by the square footage of each unit.
If you look at some of the other units in the WC area, some have concierges or other amenities that the HOA covers. Also other places have higher rates to cover future assessments (i.e. replacing the roof, or HVAC systems, etc). Think about it, if you had a low HOA due of $100/mo, but had to pay $5-10K in assessments every other year to cover major renovation projects, or lawsuits, which would you prefer to do. I would recommend that whatever place you go to purchase, read through all the HOA minutes and CC&R documents. In the minutes, you may find out why the rates are what they are, or at least find out what the major renovation projects are, if any.
I live and work in Walnut Creek. So if you need any assistance, please feel free to contact me.