Homes come in all sizes, so finding the right fit for your needs is important. A duplex is one of many housing configurations, and there are some benefits and drawbacks when buying one to live in or as an investment. If you’re considering a duplex, here’s what you need to know.
What is a duplex?
A duplex is generally a multi-family home with two separate units in one structure. Those units can be situated side by side or stacked one on top of the other. There are separate entrances for each unit, and sometimes there are separate garages and yards, as well.
In some big cities, a single dwelling may be considered a duplex if it spans two floors of a multi-family building.
Duplexes are often confused with twin homes, which are also multi-family homes that share a wall. With a duplex, both units exist on the same lot, while twin homes are on separate lots, with the lot line running through the shared wall.
Duplexes vs. other kinds of properties
There are several different types of multi-family housing options, and while they all have some features in common, such as shared walls, each has unique characteristics.
For example, you may also be looking at a townhouse, an apartment or a condominium. The primary difference between a duplex and these other options is that a duplex tends to have a single owner. Depending on the situation, the owner might live in one of the units and rent out the other, or live somewhere else and rent out both units.
With a townhouse, it’s typical that each unit is owned by a separate person. Townhomes generally aren’t stacked on top of each other, but they do share walls. Additionally, townhouse communities typically come with a set of amenities, like a clubhouse, pool or playground, and all owners in the community can use them.
A condo is similar to a townhouse, but each owner only owns the interior of the unit. The condo complex is typically owned and maintained by a homeowners association (HOA).
Apartments are often part of a multi-family structure with several units, sometimes several dozen. The entire structure, along with all of its units, is typically owned by one owner.
Other multi-family homes similar to duplexes are triplexes and quadplexes. These structures work the same as duplexes but have three and four units, respectively.
Duplex as an investment
Whether you plan to live in one of the units or not, a duplex can be a worthwhile opportunity for you if you’re a real estate investor. It’s especially common for beginner investors because of its flexibility and the relative ease of obtaining financing. If you’re planning to live in one of the units in your duplex, your options include a conventional loan, FHA loan, VA loan or 203(k) loan.
One of the biggest advantages of investing in a duplex is that you can live in one of the units. That way, if issues crop up in the other unit, you’ll be close by to address them. You could also potentially rent out the other unit for the full cost of the mortgage, essentially allowing you to live there for free.
In addition, investing in a duplex gives you access to certain tax deductions. For example, you can take deductions for most of your expenses related to yard work, maintenance and repairs because it’s considered an income property.
That said, if you’re new to real estate investing, it’s important to consider whether it’s the right fit for you.
“Being a landlord is not for everyone, but it is an awesome long-term investment strategy,” notes Casey Fleming, a mortgage advisor with C2 Financial Corporation in San Jose and author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.”
Duplex living: Pros and cons
- A duplex can provide up to two sources of rental income, but you don’t necessarily need to pay twice as much as if you were buying a single-family home.
- If your duplex has a yard, driveway or garage, you may be able to charge higher rent than you could if you owned a condo or apartment.
- If you have a family member who needs support, such as an elderly parent, you can keep them close by in a duplex without living in the same household. (Note you may not be able to take additional tax deductions if you’re renting to a family member.)
- Duplexes aren’t as common as single-family homes, so you may have fewer options to choose from.
- If you end up with tenants who are noisy or otherwise bothersome, it could be difficult living in proximity to them.
- Likewise, privacy may be an issue, especially if your tenants don’t respect your space.
Buying a duplex: What to know
One of the disadvantages of a buying a duplex is that there are limited options on the market, and they can get snapped up quickly.
“There are always far fewer duplexes listed for sale than single-family homes, so it’s harder to find a good deal,” Fleming says.
If you’re set on a duplex, you can start your search on websites like Zillow, Realtor.com and LoopNet. Networking with other real estate investors in a local group or association could also help you find the right deal in the area you’re hoping to buy in.
You might also consider working with a real estate agent to help you spot new properties as soon as they’re listed. If you go this route, you’ll likely need to demonstrate that you’re able to get financing or have another funding source lined up. Your lender may include the potential rental income from one or both units toward your income on your application (likely reduced a little to account for vacancies).
Another factor to keep in mind is that if you’re not planning to live in one of the units, interest rates are typically higher on investment properties than residential ones. Also, the down payment requirements can vary.
“An owner-occupied duplex requires 15 percent down, and an investment property duplex requires 25 percent down,” Fleming explains.
To get around this, you could purchase a duplex with an FHA, VA or conventional loan and live in one of the units for at least a year.
As with any major investment decision, consider working with a tax professional to ensure you make the right moves and maximize your benefits.