While the stereotypical American dream home is a detached dwelling, a single-family house with a yard (white picket fence optional), many people prefer to live under a shared roof. These community properties — as they’re generically known — involve cohabiting with others without counting them as roommates: Each household has its own quarters within a single or a semi-detached building.
Once you’ve narrowed your home options to a community property — one with a homeowners association and communal amenities — you’ll still face a choice on the exact type of structure. The options boil down to a basic two: apartment-style condo or a rowhouse-style townhome. Condos are the classic arrangement, but townhouses are growing in popularity, seeing a 38% increase in construction in 2021.
Each option has distinct benefits and downsides. Overall, living in a townhouse is more akin to being a traditional — that is, house-based — homeowner. A condo owner only has possession over the inside of the unit, while a townhouse owner controls the interior, exterior and the land the structure sits on.
Let’s dive more deeply into the condo vs townhouse debate, and the differences between the two.
What is a condo?
Condos, short for condominiums, tend to be units within a single, large building, typically a high-rise. There’s a common entrance and sometimes a shared garage. These homes are typically on one level, like traditional apartments. Because condos tend to have more residents per building than townhouse communities, they sometimes have amenities: a pool, clubhouse, library, gym or even special services like a concierge or dry cleaning delivery.
What is a townhouse?
Townhouses are individual structures with multiple levels built side-by-side, sharing exterior walls with neighbors. Not to be confused with the row houses typical of historic urban neighborhoods (which are independent single-family residences), these homes tend to have more square footage and more spacious floor plans than condos. A townhome community can give homeowners a hybrid experience of living in their own house — there may even be an attached private garage — while having some of the perks of community membership. Increasingly, townhouse communities are featuring common facilities, like a park or a pool. Some even have little “town centers” — rows of shops, services or restaurants.
What’s the difference between a condo and a townhouse?
The structural differences aside, there are nuanced distinctions between condo and townhouse life as well. While both a condo and townhouse are ruled by a homeowners association, some condo associations might impose stricter rules, such as less freedom over landscaping or exterior renovations (fights over solar panels have been especially notorious). Townhouses offer a bit more flexibility in terms of how you can renovate, as well as your home’s overall appearance.
Other differences to consider:
- Cost: Since condos tend to be smaller than townhouses, they might be less expensive depending on the market. However, condos generally have higher monthly HOA dues because of their buildings’ more robust amenities, while townhouses often have lower HOA fees.
- Insurance: Your homeowners insurance could look a little different depending on whether you buy a condo or townhouse. Condo insurance generally covers just the interior of your unit, while the insurance on your townhome might cover the inside and outside, which can potentially make it costlier.
- Maintenance: Typically, condos require the least amount of maintenance of all housing types. Townhouse owners have to maintain the home’s exterior (the roof and siding), outdoor living spaces and usually a small yard. While the maintenance isn’t as involved as it is with a single-family home, it’s certainly more extensive than a condo unit. Be sure to budget and plan accordingly for the extra upkeep.
- Amenities: Think about what amenities are most important to you — like security services or a pool, gym or dog park — and compare what the various communities in your area offer.
- Location: Location is an important factor to consider when buying any home. Condos — particularly high-rise condos — are often more centrally-located, while townhouse neighborhoods tend to be located on more land, so they could be less convenient to walkable spots (restaurants, stores and businesses) within a city.
- HOA rules: As a general rule of thumb, condos tend to have more specific — some might say restrictive — rules for residents. These can include days and times when trash can be left out, rules about exterior decorations and what items residents are allowed to store on their patios. While townhouse neighborhoods still have rules, such communities typically allow more freedom to residents. Be sure to review your desired community’s rules in detail before purchasing.
Advantages and disadvantages of condos
- Affordability – The lower price point of a condo can be enticing to first-time homebuyers or those looking to downsize.
- Centrally-located – Many condo communities are located near city centers, sometimes within walking distance to amenities.
- Low maintenance – Even though you own your condo, you won’t have to maintain the common areas inside or outside of it — that’s the condo association’s job.
- Close to neighbors – Depending on the condo community, there’s a strong possibility you’ll live close to other residents. If you’re someone who values privacy or quiet, a condo might not be the best fit for you.
- Monthly dues – As a condo owner, you’re responsible for paying HOA fees, which can cover everything from maintenance to security to trash removal. And they can be raised whether you like it or not.
- Restrictions – With a condo, you only own the unit itself, and you generally have to adhere to the association’s rules, which can dictate how you can renovate the interior (in terms of structural changes) or decorate the exterior.
Advantages and disadvantages of townhouses
- More space – Compared to a condo, townhomes can have more space, including more than one floor, a yard or garage.
- Similarities to a single-family home – If you like the idea of a single-family home but also the community aspects of owning a condo, a townhouse can offer the best of both.
- Extra maintenance – You’ll have more maintenance to do with a townhome than a condo, since you own and oversee more property overall.
- Farther from the city center – Because townhouses have more space, they could be farther from the action compared to a condo.
- Lack of privacy – Townhouses are still attached units, so there could be privacy concerns and noise issues with this type of home, too.
Bottom line on condos vs townhouses
So, to sum up the townhouse vs condo debate: Who are condos best for, and who is more townhouse material?
Basically, condos are ideal for buyers who don’t mind living with other residents on the floors above, below and next to them. Condos are also a smart buy for anyone who values having all of their living space on one floor — this could be an older buyer who anticipates aging-in-place in their home. Condo buildings typically have a smaller environmental footprint (think of a skyscraper full of individual dwellings). They also tend to be in the midst or within easy walking distance of bustling areas of town with lots of shops, restaurants and businesses nearby.
If you’re partial to the separate-house ideal, though, a townhouse might be a preferable form of community property, allowing you to enjoy single-family home perks along with the benefits of community living. Although others are in close proximity, the semi-detached home feels more “private,” especially since it often comes with its own yard, lawn, garden or garage. A townhouse is also better for homebuyers with families looking for more space and who don’t mind multiple floors.