Condo vs. Townhouse vs. House: Which Is Right for You?

Housing choices abound, especially in urban areas, leaving many first-time homebuyers wondering what type of residence to buy. Each type of dwelling, condominium, townhouse and detached home has its pros and cons. Buyers should consider their lifestyles and budgets, as well as their level of desired involvement in home maintenance, when deciding which style of home works best for them.

What Is a Townhouse?

Home shoppers often want to know what makes a residence a townhouse. The physical description alone — a narrow, multilevel residence attached to other residences on a street — is not always a clear giveaway, since some areas have condominium communities featuring two- and three-story attached residences. The defining feature of a townhouse is ownership; townhouse owners usually own the land on which the house is situated, including any front and backyard area that goes with the residence, no matter how small. They also own the home's exterior.

Additionally, townhouses are situated in homeowners' associations (HOAs). Owners pay monthly dues covering insurance and maintenance of the community’s common areas, as well as trash pickup and snow removal. Some HOAs enforce community aesthetics rules, such as the colors of exterior paint permitted and the types of fencing owners can install. Owners also remain financially responsible for exterior maintenance and repair of their townhouses. A townhouse is right for people who want some involvement when it comes to maintaining their homes, but do not want the responsibility of owning and maintaining a large lot.

Condo vs. Townhouse

Condominiums provide the most hands-off approach to homeownership. Many of these types of residences are physically indistinguishable from rental apartments, though some developers construct condos that look like multilevel townhouses. Condos are often cheaper than townhouses because they come with no land; the exterior of the units, plus land and any improvements, is considered common area and owned collectively by all condo owners in the community.

Monthly cost and maintenance are the defining features of condos. Like townhouse owners, condo owners pay monthly HOA fees, though these fees are significantly higher. Condo community HOA fees cover the cost of unit exterior maintenance, the insurance required to cover pricey items such as roofs, elevators and parking structures, and trash and snow removal. A condo works well for people interested in owning real estate at a reasonable price and close to where they work or play.

Condo vs. House

Situated on their own lots, detached homes often provide owners with the most freedom when it comes to improving the structures or the land that comes with them. The square footage of detached homes ranges from small to mansion-size, but the defining feature of this style of home is the freestanding structure; there are no neighbors with which to share walls. Like condos, some detached homes, especially those located in urban and suburban areas, have HOAs, but fees are usually minimal and cover no more than snow and trash removal, and shared road maintenance.

Detached houses appeal to people who want large yards for their children to play in, and outdoor space, such as a detached garage or workshop, to pursue their hobbies. Detached homes ownership is also the right call for people who do not mind yard work.

Townhouse vs. House

The decision of whether to buy a townhouse or a detached house usually boils down to convenience and lifestyle. Millennial generation buyers with little homeownership experience and no time for home maintenance may benefit the most from starting out in a townhouse and upgrading to a detached house, as they learn what it takes to keep up a home. Established buyers who desire space for their growing families and those who do not want to follow an HOA’s rules will benefit the most from buying detached homes.