The decision to buy a home can be complicated whether you are a first-time homebuyer or are looking for a second home, especially if you are shopping for property in an urban area. What kind of residence can you afford? Should you buy a house in a suburb or a historic downtown? What about a condo within walking distance of a train station? Or a townhouse in a new urban infill community?
Choosing between a townhouse, condominium or house involves questions of location, maintenance, lifestyle and price. These housing styles also have a lot of overlap, so choosing one over the others may involve less sacrifice than you might expect.
What is a condominium?
A condominium, called a “condo” for short, is actually a kind of ownership, while the terms “townhouse” and “house” (a standalone structure most people would think of as a traditional single-family home) refer to physical structure styles.
As such, condos can come in a variety of shapes in sizes, though they are often similar in size and appearance to an apartment. At the same time, some condos can be quite expansive. Condos typically are private residences that are part of a building or multiple-unit communities, although some detached condominiums are available. They are privately owned and occupied by an individual or a family.
Condos comes in many configurations beyond apartment-style buildings, said Mark Swets, executive director of the Association of Condominium, Townhouse, and Homeowners Associations. “Condos have less restrictions,” he said. “They can be converted from old office buildings or loft space.”
Regardless of their location or size, condo owners all share in the ownership of common areas and facilities that are maintained by a board that is comprised of members elected from the condo community. The board collects dues from the community’s condo owners and uses the money to maintain and operate common areas and amenities such a community pool, gym, and landscaping.
Condos often are found in urban areas where land for construction is scarce.
What is a townhouse?
A townhouse typically is a vertical, single-family structure that has at least two floors and shares at least one ground-to-roof wall with a residence next door.
Townhouses, which are individually owned, can be lined up on a row or arranged in a different configuration. Owners buy both the structure, including its interior and exterior, and the piece of land that the townhome is built on, which may include a small yard.
"A townhome is not a kind of ownership, but refers more to the physical structure,” Swets said, referring to the vertical design. “From an ownership perspective, some townhomes are classified as condos while others aren’t. It all depends upon what’s listed in the declaration and bylaws for each association."
Should I buy a house, townhouse or condo?
Here are some factors to consider when deciding what kind of residence to buy:
Are you good at home repairs, or do you prefer to have a handyman on speed dial? While a single-family house gives you freedom to fix up or renovate as you please, you also are responsible for all repairs and maintenance. The monthly fee you pay to a board or association if you own a condo may take care of maintenance such as mowing, exterior repairs and snow shoveling. Townhouse homeowners association fees may care of maintenance of the community’s common areas, such as a shared backyard or playground, but it’s not guaranteed.
“If I were to look at a condo, it would be because I didn’t want to worry about the maintenance outside,” said Lori Doerfler, the 2018 president of the Arizona Association of Realtors. “If I wanted to have a piece of land but not a lot of yard, a townhome would be a good choice.”
Location and lifestyle
Condos, townhomes and standalone houses can offer a wide range of lifestyles and locations. Homebuyers should think through whether they’re interested in an urban, walkable lifestyle, a suburban neighborhood, or something in between. Where you live also will determine your commute to work and proximity to family and friends.
Restrictions on ownership
While condos can offer convenience and amenities, they also come with monthly dues, occasional assessment fees for special community projects and property rules, which can be strict. Single-family homes, especially those in neighborhoods without a homeowners association, have few or no restrictions.
Buyers should always check the community’s bylaws to understand the rules.
“I always want to get the covenants, conditions and restrictions to the buyer,” Doerfler said. “They describe the requirements and limitations of what you can do with your home as well as the grounds.”
Any type of dwelling may come with a monthly fee to help pay for upkeep of the community’s amenities. Owners of a standalone single-family house in a neighborhood with a homeowners association will pay monthly or annual HOA fees, and condo and townhouse owners will pay fees every month to the community board or association.
When factoring your monthly mortgage payment, be sure to add in the HOA or condo association fees to determine how much you’ll pay to live in the dwelling. Fees could significantly increase your cost, putting a seemingly affordable dwelling out of reach.
Lending and price
Where you live will determine the price that you’ll pay for your home. Homes in desirable areas, such as downtowns and good school districts, can cost significantly more that homes with a long commute to a city.
Interest rates also vary by state and by lender, so it’s important to research loan terms from several lenders before making a decision.
Condo vs. townhouse
Benefits: Again, condos and townhouses aren’t mutually exclusive, but their potentially different physical attributes and homeownership structures make them worth comparing in some ways. Both offer less maintenance than a house, the opportunity to get to know neighbors and build a strong community, and walkable amenities such as a pool or community gathering space. Condos may offer a variety of amenities, and with new developments providing over-the-top extras such as rooftop bars, doormen and catering kitchens.
Risks: Condo and HOA fees can be expensive, and you are trusting the HOA or condo association to provide satisfactory upkeep to the property. Condo fees tend to be higher than townhouse HOA fees because condo associations typically provide more maintenance and amenities, and condo associations can enact special assessments to pay for one-time facilities expenses.
House vs. condo
Benefits: While condos offer a range of amenities and maintenance for exterior property, owning a single-family home provides owners with freedom from the rules and restrictions of condominium ownership. Buyers looking for privacy, a rural or suburban lifestyle or a larger property also will have more options with a single-family house.
Risks: Owning a single-family home means that the homeowner must pay for damage and upkeep to the interior and exterior property that isn’t covered by insurance. Condo associations are liable for exterior property and, if stated in the bylaws, “common elements” such as the roof and windows.
Townhouse vs. house
Benefits: Single-family house and townhouse owners both own their entire units, giving them freedom to renovate and change them as they see fit within any guidelines for exterior changes set by HOAs.
Risks: Single-family homeowners assume responsibility for the entirety of their property, which townhome owners may not be liable for repairs, upkeep, or incidents that occur outside of their unit and the land it sits on, depending on their homeowner’s association.
Which is best for you?
Your decision in buying a home vs. a condo vs. a townhouse should depend on what you can afford, how much maintenance you want to do, where you want to live and the type of community you want to live in. Young families, for example, may want a yard and a house near a good school, while a single professional may be more interested in a downtown condo that is within walking distance to nightlife and the office.
As you consider what kind of dwelling to buy, be sure to include the costs of condo or HOA fees into your budget to be sure that your new home fits your lifestyle and your budget.