What is a townhouse?
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Everything old is new again…and that applies to townhouses. This venerable form of housing — dating back to 17th-century Europe — originated in cities, but now can be found in suburbs and exurbs.
And while their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades, there are signs that townhouses are getting a new lease on life. In 2020, townhouses comprised 11 percent of single-family new construction, down from nearly 14 percent in 2008, according to an analysis from the National Association of Home Builders. Then, in 2021, the number of new-build townhouses increased by over 28 percent over the previous year.
They can be a great option for homebuyers who enjoy living close to their neighbors, or who crave a compromise between a detached house and an apartment. Here’s the lowdown on townhouses.
What is a townhouse?
Technically, a townhouse could be any city dwelling, but the name usually applies to a style of multi-floor home that shares one or two walls with adjacent properties. Each has its own entrance and often a small front lawn and backyard as well. As the name suggests, townhouses are designed for high-density, urban environments, with a tall and narrow silhouette.
They originated in London and Paris in the 1600s, and emigrated to the burgeoning colonial cities of North America — Boston, Philadelphia and New York — in the next century. Around the turn of the 20th century, in New York City, they evolved into a more utilitarian form — the rowhouse, built in sets of four, six or eight, identical except for occasional details.
Today, townhouses exist in small cities, on the outskirts of cities, and even in suburban areas. In the latter, they are often attached uniform residences belonging to a distinct community that has its own homeowners association.
Townhouse vs. condo vs. apartment: What’s the difference?
Technically, townhouse refers to a style of residence, whose chief characteristic is its physical attachment to its neighbors (as opposed to a totally detached dwelling). So its ownership structure can take several forms.
Historic traditional townhouses in cities are usually independently owned dwellings, like a separate house would be. But a townhouse can technically be a condo if it’s part of a condominium community with the associated rights or planned-unit development (PUD). Condos can come in a range of styles, from multi-story townhouses to single-floor apartments within a large, multi-unit building.
Apartments refer to individual living units within a larger building or complex. They’re generally a single-story series of rooms. Apartments can be owned (if they’re a condo or co-op) or rented. Generally, when people speak of apartments, they’re talking about rentals.
Townhouses can be single-family homes or multi-family homes. In the latter case, the individual floors are broken into individual apartments and rented out. Many historic townhouses that were built to house one family have been divided up this way.
Pros and cons of buying a townhouse
- Cost: A townhouse can be less expensive to buy than a detached single-family home in the same area, even if they have a similar square footage. “You can get a lot of space close to the cities when you’re only paying for the inside of the house and not the acreage of the yard of a single-family home,” says Ben Hoefer, a broker with John L. Scott Real Estate in Seattle. “It can be a cost-effective way to get more of what you want.” Homeowners insurance might be cheaper too.
- Maintenance: The smaller size of a townhouse means that it requires less maintenance, especially in terms of yard work (little if anything to mow). If there’s an HOA, it might take care of the exterior maintenance on the property, as well.
- Amenities: Townhouses built as part of a development might include shared facilities such as a pool, gym or clubhouse.
- Outdoor space: Compared to apartments, townhouses often come with access to a small amount of private outdoor space (a patio or lawn) and possibly a private garage.
- HOA: Some people don’t like to live with the restrictions put in place by an HOA, which might include rules about what colors of paint you can use on your front door or which types of windows you’re allowed to install. HOAs also charge monthly fees, so you’ll need to factor that expense into your budget.
- Noise pollution: Since you’ll likely be in close proximity to your neighbors — those shared walls — you might have to deal with more noise and traffic than you would in a detached single-family home.
- Multi-floor living: Climbing stairs may not be sustainable for everyone. “They are usually pretty vertical,” says Paul Gorney, a Realtor and team leader with eXp Realty in Chicago. “It can be an issue for some older homeowners.”
7 tips for buying a townhouse
1. Consider your budget
As with any home purchase, you’ll need to ensure that you can comfortably afford a townhouse before you start shopping for one. Make sure your budget includes not only the cost of the property itself but also your HOA payments, if applicable. Keep in mind that townhouses are subject to the ebb and flow of the broader real estate market, which means that prices have risen sharply over the past few years. If you want to build a new townhouse, working with a general contractor, the average cost in the United States is between $115,500 to $237,500 (depending on region and customization) as of late 2022, according to Fixr.com
2. Make a must-have list for the community
You probably already know what you want from the house, in terms of bedroom size, layout and other factors. With a townhouse, it’s important to also consider what you’d like in the community: good security? A less-restrictive set of rules? Facilities for socializing?
3. Perk up your ears
Shared walls mean it might be possible to hear what’s happening in your neighbor’s house, and vice versa. When you’re checking out townhouses, listen carefully to see how much sound travels from next door. If you’re able to purchase an end unit, you’ll only have to worry about half the noise, but these desirable homes typically have more windows and can cost more as a result.
4. Check out the common areas
If you’re planning to use facilities like the community gym, lounge or squash court, take a tour of them. Note how well they seem to be maintained and how crowded they are.
5. Talk to your future neighbors
It’s always a good idea to talk to potential neighbors when you’re considering buying a home. It’s particularly important when buying a townhouse, since you’ll likely be in closer proximity to them. Ask them what they like about the area and if there are any HOA issues you should know about.
6. Read the HOA rules
Homeowners associations can restrict everything from the color of your door to whether you’re allowed to park in your own driveway (as opposed to your garage). Make sure you’re comfortable with the HOA rules — and the financial commitment — before you go ahead with a purchase in any community.
“Some people want more restrictions and a more uniform look throughout the community,” Hoefer says. “Some people want more freedom. The good news is that there are lots of options from different HOAs, so you can find the right one for you.”
7. Think long-term
While a townhouse may make sense for you now, multi-floor living may not work for everyone and at all stages of life. If you’re planning to expand your family or are worried about your ability to traverse steps in the future, you should have a plan for whether you’ll be able to stay in the property.
Who is townhouse living best for?
Many types of homeowners can benefit from townhouses, but they’re a particularly good option for first-time homebuyers, singles or childless couples. Many Millennial homeowners on a budget are choosing newly built townhouse communities within city limits, so they don’t have to sacrifice location when they buy a new home.
Townhouses represent a nice cross between a fully detached home and an apartment. Many in big cities are often situated in historic neighborhoods, so they can be a savvy way to get into a desirable or colorful zip code, especially if you can’t afford a single-family home or brand-new apartment.
Find other housing types:
|House type||Who it’s right for:|
|Apartment||Apartments are suited for anyone looking to stay in a prime location for a cheaper price near shopping, restaurant and entertainment centers, often at a more affordable cost than buying a condo or single-family home.|
|Condominium||Condos appeal to those looking for a lower-maintenance living, home with a sense of security, opportunities to be social with neighbors, among other factors.|
|Townhouse||Townhouses are a particularly good option or first-time homebuyers or other budget-minded home buyers who want more space than typically afforded 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 huge yard and plenty of room to spread out. Others still prefer a low-maintenance condo or townhome that includes benefits like landscaping, snow removal and exterior maintenance.|
|Multi-family home||Multi-family homes are best 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 or retirees hoping to downsize in a home without stairs, or single 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 stairs or maintenance.>|
|Ranch home||Ranch homes are ideal for anyone who prefers single-story living. Singles, couples and families with children can find something to love about a ranch home.|