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If you’re thinking about buying a new home, get ready to explore a wide range of options. From single-family homes to condos and everything in between, knowing the nuances of different types of houses can help you determine what will work best for you. Do you want complete privacy? Common areas shared with other residents you’ll see every day? Space you might be able to rent out for some extra income? And what kind of design will help you make a house feel more like a home?
As you think about these questions, consider this your primer to eliminate the confusion and help you find the right place for you.
House types by design structure
When you think of buying a house, you may be picturing a single-family home that sits on its own piece of land and isn’t attached to any other structures.
However, by U.S. Census Bureau definition, a single-family house could also be a row house, townhouse or semi-detached home, as long as it’s separated from adjacent units by a ground-to-roof wall (no other housing units above or below) and does not share any utilities or HVAC systems with other homeowners. People who choose single-family homes tend to appreciate privacy, the potential for more storage space and greater autonomy when it comes to making decisions about the property.
Co-op or condo
You might also consider a condominium or co-op (short for “cooperative” housing). In the case of a condo, homeowners purchase an individual unit within a community of other units. In a co-op, you would own shares in the cooperative or corporation that owns your building or community, rather than the unit itself. Some condos and co-ops come with amenities such as a gym or a doorman, and in most of the country, they tend to be more affordable than single-family homes. However, there are some drawbacks: monthly HOA fees, restrictions from HOA rules and limited privacy.
A townhouse is a multi-floor home with its own entrance that shares one or two walls with surrounding townhomes. People who are drawn to purchase a townhouse appreciate the smaller footprint because they typically cost less than a detached single-family home in the same area.
Depending on the community, other potential pros include shared amenities, an HOA to manage exterior maintenance and landscaping and some outdoor space to enjoy. The cons, on the other hand, can include limited parking, HOA rules and fees and lack of privacy.
A multi-family home is a single housing unit designed to accommodate more than one family living independently. This might be a duplex or a building with up to four apartments. Sometimes, an individual or family will purchase a multi-family home to live in one part of it while renting the other units for additional income. Another benefit is the ability to provide close but separate living space for a relative — particularly one that might need frequent assistance, such as an elderly parent.
Accessory dwelling unit
An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) — also sometimes known as an additional dwelling unit — is a second housing unit on the same lot as a single-family home, which has its own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and entrance. These can be entirely separate structures, or they can be converted spaces such as a basement suite or an apartment above a garage. ADUs are often used as a separate space for a family member to call home, which is why they are sometimes called in-law suites. However, you don’t have to be related to the single-family home owner to live in an ADU. ADUs are not permitted everywhere, but they have become a popular way to earn rental income in places they are allowed, especially in expensive areas like California.
A modular home is a factory-built home assembled by a builder on a permanent foundation and on a piece of property. Though they seem similar, modular homes are not the same as mobile homes, which can technically be moved from place to place. They are also slightly different from manufactured homes in that manufactured homes are typically completely built off-site, unlike a modular home, which is built on-site.
Mobile homes are also called manufactured homes, although the “manufactured” terminology didn’t exist until the Housing Act of 1980. Regardless of how someone describes these properties, they are built in a factory and then transported to a plot of land. These tend to be some of the cheapest types of homes to purchase, although getting a mortgage for a mobile home may include some additional restrictions. Often, a homeowner might own the home, but not the land it sits on. Instead, they have to rent that property in a land lease arrangement. Also, mobile homes are not that mobile. According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to move and set up a single-wide trailer is between $5,000 and $8,000.
Tiny home or container home
Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like: tiny. They tend to be under 600 square feet. In addition to a smaller price tag to purchase one, you’ll save in a range of other areas — less space to furnish, heat and cool, for example. These aren’t as common as other types of homes, so you might consider building a tiny home. Some tiny homes might also fall into the mobile home classification, simply because they are built on wheels. They’re more affordable, which makes them a consideration for a lot of first-time homebuyers on tight budgets, particularly as other homes have soared in value in recent years. Container homes, while usually similarly tiny, are built from disused metal shipping containers.
Common architectural home styles
Though real estate agents may use the term to reference any small house, true bungalows are one- or one-and-a-half stories with two or three bedrooms. They span a total of 1,000 to 2,000 square feet and often have a front porch. Bungalow styles include Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, Mission-style and Queen Anne. Because of their relatively small size, bungalows may appeal to those who need their living space on one floor, such as those with mobility challenges.
Ranch homes are another popular kind of single-family home. Ranch houses are generally single-story properties, usually wider than they are deep, with a lower-pitched roof and an open or semi-open floor plan. Within the ranch category, architectural styles and designs include the California ranch, storybook ranch and split-level ranch (which deviate from the one-story style).
Split-level properties have short flights of stairs that separate a first floor that usually features a dining area, living area and kitchen, a second floor with bedrooms and a finished basement with another living area, along with additional bedrooms in some cases. The layout can make efficient use of space, but the additional sets of stairs present a challenge for residents with limited mobility.
A triangular roof, an inviting front porch with large columns and double-hanging windows are three characteristics commonly associated with a Craftsman home. This is a simple yet classic design, dating back to the early 1900s.
Cottages tend to be smaller properties, although the home may use elements from any number of other classic architectural approaches to home construction. You likely won’t find cottages in many urban areas; these tend to be associated with vacation destinations and smaller towns.
One of the classic traditional home styles, Victorian-era houses include are officially characterized as Queen Anne style. Arches over windows and entryways, bay windows, round towers and large front porches are common elements of these homes. They are often large, too — typically two or three stories.
The Colonial name pays homage to the original American colonies, settled by those who came over from Britain. These typically have a center-hall layout, with rooms symmetrically positioned on either side of the entryway. Colonial-style homes are simple and reflect an architectural style you might associate with New England, which served as the primary welcoming point for those early American residents.
Cape Cod homes, named after the vacation destination in Massachusetts, also reflect a quaint New England aesthetic. These tend to have a centrally located door and the same focus on symmetry as a Colonial, with a steep gabled roof as one of the calling card features.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright popularized Prairie-style homes, which often include horizontal lines to mimic a flat setting. Those who don’t like segmented rooms and prefer an open floor plan might especially enjoy this style. Prairie features include a low-pitched roof with overhangs and a centrally placed chimney.
Expansive ceilings, stone fireplaces and wood everywhere — these are the three primary features of Tudor-style homes. These are bigger homes, and they don’t have the perfect symmetry associated with a Colonial or Cape Cod. The interior of Tudor homes can be particularly grand, with intricate millwork.
MId-century modern designs largely began appearing after World War II, and the style recalls a Rat Pack–era sense of cool. With large windows, mid-century modern design offers a glimpse into homes with open floor plans and a mix of vibrant colors.
The essential features of a modern-style home vary depending on whether you live in a more urban or rural setting, but it typically includes a low-pitched or flat roof. The other qualities of a modern-style home might include:
- Awning over the front door
- Simple, clean cabinets with no raised panels
- Expansive windows
If it doesn’t look like something you’ve seen regularly, you’re probably looking at a contemporary home. Contemporary design works to incorporate the newest trends and explore new directions for how a home can look and feel. Often, contemporary homes are asymmetrical — breaking with the traditional Colonial or Cape Cod approach — and embrace a more creative spirit. Additionally, since these are newer constructions, contemporary homes tend to include the latest technologies and new building materials.
If you want to feel like you’re living in a seaside town in Italy or Spain, consider Mediterranean-style homes. Tiled roofs, stucco walls and arches over the entryway are some of the classic touches you’ll find in one of these homes.
Is it a boat? Or is it a house? It’s both. A floating houseboat shares some architectural similarities with a traditional house — a rectangular shape that is not the aerodynamic, curvy body of a speed boat, for example — but it also has an engine, a fuel tank and the other necessities to leave the dock.
Cabins tend to be located in rural settings. Older cabins can be fairly primitive, with simple designs of large wooden logs, and they often have porches for enjoying the outdoors, along with fireplaces for cooler weather. However, cabins aren’t all rustic, moderately priced properties. There are also luxury cabins in high-end ski towns and remote destinations. While a cabin can be a permanent place to call home, many residents use cabins as second homes or vacation getaways. Their location tends to offer easier access to recreational outdoor activities such as fishing, hunting and hiking.
The modern farmhouse style reigns most popular in 42 states in the U.S., mainly in the Northwest, East and Southeast states, according to a recent survey of 5,000-plus Americans by Homes.com. Respondents said they were drawn to the modern farmhouse look because the style is “aesthetically pleasing but not boring.” Other characteristics of this style include clean lines and cozy elements, and a family-friendly size and scale.
How to choose what house is right for you
If so many types of homes have got you feeling overwhelmed, relax. Here are four key steps to help figure out which house is right for you:
Think about where you want to live
If you already have a geographic sense of where you want to call home, you can start to narrow your search. For example, you’ll likely encounter some challenges finding a condo in a rural area, while a single-family home might be too expensive if you’re looking to live in the downtown of a major city. If you have your heart set on a mid-century modern home, you might want to look at an area of the country where that style of architecture is abundant, like the Coachella Valley in California.
Do the math to determine your budget
Where you want to live is only part of the equation; the most important piece is how much you can comfortably spend. Use Bankrate’s Home Affordability Calculator to figure out how much you can spend on a monthly mortgage payment based on all your other expenses. If your finances feel more like a fit for a tiny home, that’s OK. Remember that you can build equity in a starter home now and eventually move into something bigger when you’re ready.
Get pre-approved for a mortgage
After you estimate what you think you can afford, it’s time to get a real sense of what someone will let you borrow. You can get pre-approved for a mortgage quickly to have a concrete number for your budget. Plus, a pre-approval can show that you’re a serious buyer to any sellers who will consider your offer.
Find a good real estate agent
Shopping for a home in today’s seller’s market isn’t easy. Rather than trying to do it yourself, it’s wise to find an expert real estate agent who will listen to your needs and your budget. He or she will be able to tell you if the type of home at the top of your list is realistic, or if you should expand your search to include different structures and styles.