In the real estate world, there is a dizzying number of phrases to know and understand. This is especially true if you’re looking to buy a new home, since you’ll need to learn the terms used to describe different types of property and also become familiar with the financial details involved with taking out a mortgage.

One term you may hear often is single-family home. It seems self-explanatory, but what is a single-family home exactly, and how is it different from other types of homes?

What is a single-family home?

In most cases, a single-family home is what you would imagine it to be — a freestanding home set alone on its own piece of property.

“A single-family home is an independent residential structure that sits on its own land and is designed to be used as a single dwelling unit, having just one kitchen, unshared walls and unshared utilities,” says San Antonio, Texas, real estate agent Benjamin Ross.

The government provides a broader definition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a single-family house is one that may be fully detached, semi-detached, a row house or a townhome. However, for a dwelling that’s attached to other homes to be considered a single-family home, it “must be separated from the adjacent unit by a ground-to-roof wall,” they note. Also, units that are attached in some way to another must not share heating or air-conditioning systems or utilities, nor have units located above or below.

What’s the difference between a single-family home and a multi-family home?

You may be wondering if a single property that hosts multiple units can be considered a single-family home. An example might be a structure on a single lot that has a primary residence downstairs and two small apartments upstairs.

A single-family home cannot have multiple units, says Ross, because it doesn’t meet the characteristics of housing set by U.S. government agencies. A home with multiple units would share interior walls, and each would presumably have their own kitchen and utilities.

Pros and cons of living in a single-family home

If you’re considering a single-family home, there are some major advantages and disadvantages to be aware of. Pros and cons, however, can vary depending on location and the type of property you’re considering. So, make sure to consider how this list lines up with your unique situation.

Pros of single-family homes:

  • More privacy: Since single-family homes usually sit on a parcel of private property and don’t share walls, you have a high level of privacy. Noise levels matter a lot less when there are no wall-sharing neighbors to hear you.
  • More space: Single-family homes tend to be bigger than multi-family dwellings. They also typically have more storage space, Ross adds. Many also have room for exterior storage space, such as a shed, garage or barn.
  • More exterior options: Ross also says that single-family homes make it easier to personalize your landscaping. You can build on to or modify the structure more easily with this type of home, as well.

Cons of single-family homes:

  • Higher prices: Single-family homes often cost more than other types of properties. This is especially true if you’re buying a home with a lot of land.
  • Less income potential: It’s hard to deny that multi-family homes have more income potential than single-family homes, notes California real estate agent Mike Kistner. For example, in many multi-family properties, the owner lives in one unit and rents out the other units, which brings in regular income to help cover the mortgage.
  • More responsibility: Unless your single-family home is part of an HOA community that provides basic services, you’ll have to hire help to deal with maintenance and repairs — or do it all yourself.

Who are single-family homes best for?

There’s no perfect home that will suit everyone’s tastes. Where some homeowners prefer a single-family home with a huge yard and plenty of room to spread out, others prefer a multi-family property they can use to earn rental income. Others still prefer a low-maintenance condo or townhome that includes HOA benefits like landscaping, snow removal and exterior maintenance.

For the most part, single-family homes are “best for families that can afford the luxury of more space and privacy,” says Ross. “These homes suit a family that has the time and money that general maintenance and yard upkeep requires.”

Of course, the best home for someone can change as time goes on, he says: “As we get older and our children grow up, we tend to look toward more of a community-type living situation.” That’s often why you see pre-retirees and retirees moving into condos where some of the chores of homeownership are taken care of for them.

Find other housing types

House type Who it’s right for
Apartment Apartments are well suited for anyone looking to stay in a prime location near shopping, restaurants and entertainment options, often at a more affordable cost than buying a condo or single-family home.
Condominium Condos appeal to those looking for lower-maintenance living, and a home with a sense of security and opportunities to be social with neighbors, among other factors.
Townhouse Townhouses are a particularly good option for first-time homebuyers or other budget-minded buyers who want more space than typically offered in a condo.
Modular home Modular homes are enticing to empty-nesters looking to downsize, couples looking for backyard units like tiny homes or families looking to upgrade their dated properties in nice but expensive neighborhoods.
Single-family home Single-family homes are best for families who prefer a big yard, privacy and plenty of room to spread out, and who can afford the maintenance and upkeep.
Multi-family home Multi-family homes are good for those who are interested in getting into real estate investing and are comfortable with the added responsibility and time commitment that comes with being a landlord.
Bungalow home At between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet, bungalows are a great option for young families looking for a starter home, retirees hoping to downsize or homeowners who want the single-family-home lifestyle without managing a huge property.
Co-op Co-ops are most often found in major cities, and they can be good for those looking for security or neighbors who largely adhere to the building’s rules and policies.
Patio home Typically capped at one-and-a-half stories and part of a larger association, patio homes are best for homeowners who don’t want to deal with a lot of stairs or maintenance.
Ranch home Ranch homes are ideal for anyone who prefers single-story living. Singles, couples and large families alike can find something to love about a ranch home.

Bottom line

Single-family homes are certainly one of the most popular real estate options out there. The increased privacy and space are appealing. But don’t forget to consider the added responsibilities and costs when deciding on the right choice for you and your family.