Here's what most of us think we know about townhouses: They're glorified apartments. They're houses squished together so hard they share walls. They're ruled by iron-fisted homeowners' associations who will force you to dye your dog to match your window shades.
Turns out, most of us are straight-up wrong about townhouses. They're not apartments or houses, or even condominiums. And HOAs will not make you dye your dog. Probably. (Just in case, maybe you should ask before you move in if you feel strongly about dog dyeing.)
"Not all townhomes are condos, and vice versa," said Joan Rogers, a real estate agent in Portland, Ore. "A condominium is a very specific thing, wherein the owner owns only the airspace inside the walls, and all exterior elements are held in common. Condos can be apartment-style, townhouse style, or even several small houses. A townhouse isn't necessarily a condo, though."
Here's the important difference: Townhouse owners own the little patch of land their townhouse sits on. Condo owners only own, as Ms. Rogers said, the airspace inside the condo, not the land. If owning a piece of planet Earth is on your bucket list, a townhouse will let you live that dream. Let's see what other items you can cross off that list by owning a townhouse.
Granted, that little piece of planet Earth that comes with the purchase of your townhouse isn't going to be huge. It's going to be a patch of grass, maybe a shrub or a flowering tree, possibly a petunia border.
Here's where the homeowner's association comes in. You pay dues every month to these folks, and they take care of that patch of grass. And repainting the exterior. And re-shingling the roof. And blowing the leaves out of your parking space. And, if you live in a less than tropical locale, removing the snow in the parking lot.
You can probably plant a row of rose bushes along the front walk if you're so inclined, but no one will look askance if you don't. You need never throw out your back bending over to pull one stupid weed again.
Of course, every HOA (as the homeowners' association likes to call itself) has a different list of maintenance items it'll take care of, so you'll want to make sure you all agree on who has to do what in the yard. But often, the HOA would prefer you keep your flamboyant red hot pokers (calm down, it's a flower) and bright pink window shutters away from the manicured front lawn.
When you buy a townhouse, it comes with a community, and that community has amenities. Most townhouse developments have a gym, a pool, a laundry room, tennis courts and even a recreation room that owners can sign up to use for parties.
Say your townhouse community doesn't have one of these things, like tennis courts, and you know in your heart that you are the next Roger Federer or Serena Williams. (You're not, but let's go with the example.) In many townhouse communities, owners can pool their money to get these facilities added, as long as there's room to add such things on the property.
Officially, as a townhouse owner, you own a percentage of each of the common facilities. So if there are 50 units in your development, you own 2 percent of the laundry room. If you choose to think of one of the sofa cushions in the rec room as your 2 percent, go ahead, but be aware that almost no one else in the development will agree with you.
Often, townhouses are cheaper than free-standing houses, or single-family homes, as they're known in the real estate biz. Sure, once you buy a townhome, you'll be paying a mortgage and HOA fees, while your friends in a regular house are only in for the mortgage. But you know what else they get? A yard full of weeds, a driveway full of snow and a roof full of leaks. Who wants an HOA now, huh?
Townhouses are usually, but not always, multilevel affairs that share a side wall or two with another townhouse. They can have as many bedrooms and bathrooms as will fit in the floor plan, just like a single-family house. They can be close in to the city center, or they can be out in the 'burbs surrounded by vineyards or forests. The point is, you can get a lot of the same stuff in a townhouse that you can find in a regular house but you typically pay way less for it.
Sometimes you can actually find better stuff in a townhouse -- that is, if you're willing to share a wall or two. Townhouses are often newer than single-family homes that are on the market, so the floors and walls won't slope like a funhouse. Townhouses sometimes have the fancy upgrades built right in that you otherwise couldn't afford in a house, like granite countertops and high-end stainless steel appliances, or hardwood floors, or eco-friendly materials like cork and bamboo.
Hey there, Nosy Nellie, have we got a townhouse benefit for you! The units are close, and the parking areas are often shared, so you can sit by the window and watch everyone come and go all day and all night. There's another way to save money: Watch the neighbors instead of TV. You can ditch the cable bill.
The truth is, a bit of Nosy Nellie-ish behavior does benefit the neighborhood. Being part of a townhouse community means neighbors are more likely to know one another and therefore know if someone new is creeping about with a black eye mask and a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. If Nosy Nellie knows her neighbors are out of the house, she'll be more suspicious of noises next door when she puts the empty glass between the wall and her ear.
Also, according to Joan Rogers the real estate agent, "many developments have rental caps as far as how many units can be rented out at a time," say ten out of the fifty in the development. Owners have a stake in the development; renters, not so much. With less turnover, the neighborhood is more stable and Nosy Nellie knows who to smile at and who to give the ol' stink eye. And if there's more stink eye than smiling, there's always the HOA to appeal to about the renters.
For seniors or anyone who is, as Ms. Rogers so delicately put it, "medically fragile," having a Nosy Nellie listening at the wall isn't so bad for those folks, either. "There can be a real advantage to having neighbors close by, while not being in a 'retirement home,' and still having the advantage of building equity," she noted.
There's a lot to be said for less yard maintenance, on-site exercise and laundry facilities and knowing all your neighbors when you've had a little mishap. Or a big mishap. However big your mishaps tend to be, townhouses mean there is likely someone around most of the time to help you.
That works for frequent travelers, too. Alert your immediate neighbors and the resident Nosy Nellie that you'll be out of town for a month and they'll keep an eye and ear out for your place. And when you get back, the yard won't be a weedy mess. But it would be nice if you brought a little trinket for Nellie. She does so much for the community. Maybe a nicer crystal glass to put between her ear and the wall?
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Author's Note: 5 Advantages of a Townhouse
I grew up in a very rural county, with lots of farms and forests surrounding very small towns. There were a couple of apartment buildings, but no townhouses. I had no concept of a townhouse or anything like it until I saw the brownstone facades of Brooklyn buildings on "The Cosby Show." I am not kidding.
Because of that, I've always thought of townhouses as glamorous urban dwellings. I assume the people who live in townhouses must be cosmopolitan city-folk who are too busy attending the opera and benefit galas to deal with weeds and remodeling projects.
I live in a very old single-family home with slanted floors and some questionable hundred-year-old construction techniques. Down the street are new LEED-certified green townhouses. So now those fantasy people in their fantasy townhouses are not only more sophisticated than I am, but they're environmentally friendlier. I bet their walls meet at right angles in the corners, too.
My house has charm out the wazoo, and a big yard where I play with my dog; but some days, I'd like to be too cosmopolitan for weeds.
- Assad, Anna. "The Advantages of Townhouses." SFGate (July 11, 2012) http://homeguides.sfgate.com/advantages-townhouses-7790.html
- Bibey, Chris. "Debate: Single Family Home or Townhouse?" Money Crashers. (July 11, 2012)http://www.moneycrashers.com/debate-single-family-home-or-townhouse/
- Rogers, Joan. Residential Real Estate Sales at Windermere Real Estate. Personal interview, conducted on July 6, 2012.