How to choose between a condo, house, townhouse or apartment

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Finding a new place to plant roots isn’t solely about comparing the price tag. Your real estate search is likely to include a range of options: condo vs. apartment, condo vs. house, condo vs. townhouse and more. As you stack different types of properties against each other, it’s important to think about not only what you can afford, but also your preferences and expectations as a homeowner or renter.

“Buyers should consider their budget and lifestyle, as well as their desired amount of involvement in home maintenance when it comes to deciding which style of home they should focus their search on,” says John Ameralis, a licensed associate broker and leader of The Ameralis Team with Compass in New York City.

Maybe you’re a first-time homebuyer evaluating a condo vs. townhouse, or an empty nester looking to downsize. No matter where you are in life, consider this your primer on what types of housing can fit your needs.

Condo vs. house vs. townhouse vs. apartment

Cost Ownership Best for
Condo Down payment, monthly mortgage payment and HOA fees Unit First-time homebuyers, downsizing seniors
House Down payment and monthly mortgage payment House and property it sits on Couples, families
Townhouse Down payment, monthly mortgage payment and HOA fees Unit and property it sits on Those who want more space than a condo, but not the responsibilities of a house
Apartment Security deposit and monthly rent No ownership Those who want flexibility to relocate or are saving for a down payment

Condos

A condominium (or condo for short) is a salable unit within a larger community, which could be a high-rise building.

It’s easy to think of condos as similar to apartments, but there is one major point of distinction: You own a condo, and you rent an apartment.

Of all the home types on the market, condos “require the least amount of maintenance. You only need to maintain the ‘walls in,’” Ameralis explains. So, if the roof is leaking or the carpet in the entryway to the building needs to be replaced, that’s not your responsibility — the condo association handles those duties.

Condos can be an option for anyone who wants to keep home maintenance to a minimum, including first-time homebuyers, singles, older homeowners or people who travel frequently. With the association taking care of maintenance, you won’t have to worry about tasks like mowing the grass or arranging trash pickup services. Some condo buildings also have door guards and offer an extra level of security, particularly in large cities.

Condo association rules can be highly restrictive, however, meaning you may not be able to customize your unit the way you want. Those who value exclusivity and privacy might find the community areas less than ideal, as well.

“It is important to keep in mind that in condos, even the most exclusive ones, you are still sharing elevators and other amenities,” explains Judy Zeder, a Realtor associate with Florida-based The Jills Zeder Group of Coldwell Banker.

You also might be restricted from renting out your condo, depending on the HOA’s rules. If you want to make an income from your property or need a tenant to help pay bills, check the HOA rules before you buy.

In addition, condos come with HOA fees. These dues help pay for a property management company and cover maintenance costs. So, along with your mortgage payment for the condo, you’ll have another mandatory expense to cover.

Pros

  • Limited maintenance
  • Extra security

Cons

  • Limited ability to customize
  • Potential privacy concerns

Houses

When most people talk about buying a house, they mean purchasing a single-family home, which is a standalone structure on a foundation. Single-family homes can be single-story ranch homes or have multiple stories, as well as a basement or attic space.

The biggest point in favor of buying a house is the freedom to decorate, maintain and alter it however you like (while obeying local building ordinances and/or homeowners association guidelines).

“Owning your own house gives you more freedom to live how you want to versus condos, which have bylaws that govern what you can and cannot do,” Ameralis says.

A house doesn’t share walls or common spaces as some condos and townhomes do, meaning you have more privacy. Many single-family houses also have yards, so you get more outdoor space to enjoy.

Although you get all the space when you buy a house, that also means a higher sticker price. The average single-family home sold for $58,000 more than a condo in 2020, according to data from real estate brokerage Redfin.

In addition to paying more upfront, you’ll likely pay more down the road, too, which might make you think twice about the condo vs. house decision. Owning a house means you’ll be responsible for all of the maintenance and repairs, which can be considerably more cumbersome than you’d have with another type of home. Think lawn care, keeping the gutters clean, servicing the furnace and other routine maintenance. Those tasks can add up to significant time and money.

Here are more differences between a house vs. condo.

Pros

  • Freedom over aesthetic choices
  • More outdoor space

Cons

  • Higher price tag
  • All maintenance is your responsibility

Townhouses

Most modern townhouses have small footprints, multiple floors and shared exterior walls with neighboring homes within the community. Some townhouses might have small yards or patios, and can be much cheaper to buy than a single-family home.

For homebuyers debating between a house or condo, a townhouse might be the best of both worlds. You get multiple levels, often more space (like a single-family house) with less exterior maintenance (a major perk of condos). Pet owners will also like the fact that their townhouse may have a small yard for their four-legged friends to enjoy.

When it comes to the ability to make your own decisions about your property, a townhouse comes out in front compared to a condo. Townhouses tend to allow property owners a bit more autonomy when it comes to shutter and door colors, though those decisions typically have to be HOA-approved.

Townhouses, like condos, usually come with HOA rules and dues. Depending on the age of the property and amenities offered, those fees can add up fast.

“The older a townhouse development, the higher the maintenance fees tend to be, because the communal parts of the property — whether it’s the grounds, pool, roof or siding — are common and shared and they need to be repaired over time,” explains Andrea Webb, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty NJ Metro Group in Montclair, New Jersey.

Here are more differences between a townhouse vs. condo.

Pros

  • More space than a condo
  • More control over customization

Cons

  • Monthly fees

Apartments

An apartment is the general term that can be used to describe any residence inside of a residential building where the individual units are rented. In bigger cities, these can be condos that are being individually rented, or large buildings of units owned by a single owner.

A big factor in determining if you should look for a condo vs. apartment comes down to money: Do you have enough cash to put toward a down payment? You can use Bankrate’s rent vs. buy calculator to get a good idea if choosing to rent an apartment vs. buy a condo is a better move for you right now.

Apartments give residents a place to live without most of the responsibilities that come with homeownership, such as property taxes, maintenance fees and building upkeep. The buildings could come with community amenities like a gym, pool or dog park, as well.

Apartments can be a good choice for someone who doesn’t have enough income or funds in reserve to afford buying a home. They’re also a wise option for someone who isn’t certain about their next steps in life. For example, if you want to explore relocation opportunities for your career, the flexibility of an apartment — a lease typically lasts for one year — can be more appealing than the long-term implications of a mortgage.

When renting an apartment, however, you’re limited in what changes you can make (think paint colors or fixtures), and the landlord can dictate things like whether to allow pets. Also, you won’t build any equity, nor get the tax perks that come with homeownership.

Here are more differences between a condo vs. apartment.

Pros

  • Flexibility to move
  • No need to worry about maintenance

Cons

  • No equity or ownership benefits
  • Must abide by landlord’s rules

Bottom line

To help you make the right choice for your home, consider your savings account, how much space you’ll need, how long you plan to stay in a home and how much money you can comfortably put toward repairs, maintenance and remodeling costs.

Visit open houses and search online listings to see what’s on the market in your price range. Consider working with a real estate agent to help you narrow your choices, and do in-depth research so you go into the homebuying process with a solid understanding of what you want.

If you aren’t sure of where you want to land just yet, follow Bankrate’s Housing Heat Index to get a sense of where you might be able to find a good deal today.

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Written by
Jennifer Bradley Franklin
Contributing writer
Jennifer Bradley Franklin is a multi-platform journalist and author, often covering finance, real estate and more.
Edited by
Mortgage editor