Condo, House or Townhouse: Which Is Best for You?

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Buying a home allows you to choose a residence that fits your lifestyle.

Should you buy a house in a suburb or a historic downtown? What about a condo within walking distance of a train station? Or maybe a townhouse in a new urban infill community?

Whether you’re a first-time homebuyer or are looking for a second home, choosing between a condo, house or townhouse requires you to consider location, maintenance and price. The good news is these housing styles have some overlap, so choosing one over the others may involve less sacrifice than you might expect.

What’s the difference between a condo and a townhouse?

Condominiums — called condos for short — are a kind of ownership, while townhouses and houses (stand-alone structures that most people would consider traditional, single-family homes) refer to physical structure styles.

Condos

Condos can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, though they are often similar in size and appearance to an apartment. At the same time, some condos can be quite expansive. They typically are private residences that are part of a building of multiple-unit communities, although some detached condominiums are available. Condos are occupied by an individual or a family and are often found in urban areas where land for construction is scarce.

Condos can also come in many configurations beyond apartment-style buildings, said Mark Swets, the former executive director of the Association of Condominium, Townhouse, and Homeowners Associations — “Condos have less restrictions. They can be converted from old office buildings or loft space.”

Regardless of their location or size, condo owners share ownership of common areas and facilities that are maintained by a board 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, like community pools, gym facilities and landscaping.

Townhouses

Townhouses typically are vertical, single-family structures that have at least two floors and must be separated by at least one ground-to-roof wall with any other residence that may be attached to it.

Townhouses, which are individually owned, can be lined up in a row or arranged in a different configuration. Owners buy both the structure, including its interior and exterior, and the piece of land on which the townhouse is built, which may include a small yard.

In some cases, townhouses may be classified as condos. The way they’re categorized depends on what’s outlined in the declaration and bylaws for each association, Swets said.

Comparing condos, townhouses and houses

To help you decide which house and ownership type is best for you, we’ve highlighted comparisons as we look at condo versus townhouse, house versus condo and townhouse versus house.

Condo vs. townhouse

Benefits

Risks

Condos and townhouses both offer the opportunity to get to know neighbors and build a strong community and walkable amenities such as a pool or clubhouse, with generally less maintenance than a house. Condos may offer a variety of extra features, with new developments providing luxury conveniences such as rooftop bars, doormen and catering kitchens.Condo and homeowners association (HOA) fees can be expensive, and you’re trusting the HOA or condo association to provide satisfactory upkeep of the property. Condo fees tend to be higher than townhouse HOA fees — as much as several hundred dollars more — because condo associations typically provide more maintenance and amenities, and they can charge owners extra fees to pay for one-time facility expenses.

House vs. condo

Benefits

Risks

While condos offer a range of amenities and maintenance for the exterior of the property, owning a single-family home frees owners from the rules and restrictions of condo ownership. Buyers looking for privacy, a rural or suburban lifestyle or a larger property will have more options with a single-family house.Owning a single-family home means that the owner must pay for damage and upkeep to the interior and exterior that insurance doesn’t cover. Condo associations are liable for the exterior property and, if stated in the bylaws, “common elements” such as the roof and windows.

Townhouse vs. house

Benefits

Risks

Owners of both single-family houses and townhouses own their units, giving them freedom to improve and renovate as they see fit — within any guidelines for changes set by HOAs.Single-family homeowners assume responsibility for their property. Townhouse owners may not be liable for repairs, upkeep or incidents that occur outside their unit or the land on which it sits, depending on their HOA.

How to choose between condos and townhouses

Here are some factors to consider when deciding on what kind of residence to buy.

Maintenance

A single-family house gives you the freedom to fix up or renovate as you please, but you’re also responsible for repairs and maintenance. As a condo owner, the monthly fee you pay to a board or association may take care of maintenance such as mowing, exterior repairs and snow shoveling. Townhouse HOA fees may include maintenance of the community’s common areas, such as a shared backyard or playground, but that’s not always 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, immediate past 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, townhouses and stand-alone 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.

Ownership restrictions

While condos can offer convenience and amenities, they also come with monthly dues and occasional assessment fees for special community projects, such as clubhouse repairs, 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.”

Monthly fees

Any type of dwelling may come with a monthly fee to help pay for upkeep of the community’s amenities, which might include a gym, pool, clubhouse access and landscaping. Owners of a single-family house in a neighborhood with a homeowners association will pay monthly or annual HOA fees, and condo and townhouse owners will likely pay fees every month to their community board or association.

HOA fees typically can range from about $200 to $300 a month; other factors may contribute to how much the fee will be, like your location, unit size and available amenities. Monthly condo association fees can go as high as $700 or more, also depending on the amenities and services provided.

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 home out of reach.

Lending and price

Where you live will determine the price that you’ll pay for your home. Homes in desirable locations, such as a lively downtown area or a neighborhood with a good school district, can cost significantly more than homes with a long commute to a city.

Interest rates vary by lender and location, so it’s important to comparison shop with multiple mortgage lenders before making a decision.

Another consideration for each dwelling type is its resale value. It’s helpful to research resale information for similar homes in the community or neighborhood, and make a note of how long those properties were on the market before they were sold. You should also keep in mind that association fees could have an impact on whether a home is resold.

The bottom line

Your decision to buy a condo, house or townhouse should depend on:

  • What you can afford
  • How much maintenance you’re OK handling
  • Where you want to live
  • The type of community in which you want to live

For example, a family with kids may want a house with a big yard near a good school, while a single professional may be more interested in a downtown condo within walking distance to the office and nightlife.

As you consider which dwelling to buy, be sure to include the costs of condo or HOA fees in your housing expenses to determine whether your new home fits your lifestyle and your budget.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing. 

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Marty Minchin
Marty Minchin |

Marty Minchin is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marty here

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