I concur with both Eric and Jed. I recommend first talking to your own agent and, if you donâ€™t have one, the listing agent to get more details on the Home Owner's Association and what the HOA fee includes (i.e. hazard insurance, common area maintenance, street maintenance, etc...). This will give you a much clearer idea as to the need for the HOA dues. I would also ask the agent if the public records show it's a SFR or Condo. Any agent should also be able to look this information up for you.
In terms of your home search, I've noticed that Oakland is the softest of all three markets. There are some great condos/lofts in great areas within your price range. And for SFR homes, there are some nice/clean neighborhoods to keep an eye out for. Berkeley and Alameda will be a bit tougher to find...but with diligence it's doable. Check out http://www.MyHousingGuide.com, http://www.movoto.com and/or http://www.ziprealty.com to do your searches. You should save a search so you receive automatic emails for when new homes within your search criteria come on the market.
Feel free to contact me anytime with questions!
Have your agent get confirmation or explanation.
As was mentioned, some areas of San Francisco have Home Owner's Associations....and most of them are obsolete having been made in the early 1900s and saying things like no Blacks or Chinese. Many of them have a fee of $100-$300 or so a year and the money is used to pay for the gardening of the common areas in the neighborhood (and that is why they look so good.)
Unfortunately, I do not know Berkeley but I can guess that the rules are probably the same. As for the downstairs with a kitchenette, you need to ask the Listing Agent if it was done with permits? If not, was an attempt made to Grandfather it in? And the same agent can tell you what will happen if you are caught with an illegal in-law. The rules are different for each city.
Good luck in your search! I know there are many great agents for Berkeley and the East Bay. Please contact me if you wish. I welcome your questions or if you want to look in San Francisco.