Housing choices are abundant, especially in urban areas, leaving many first-time homebuyers wondering which type of residence to buy. Each style of dwelling—condominium, townhouse, and detached home—has its pros and cons. Buyers should consider their lifestyles and budgets, as well as how much they want to be involved in home maintenance when deciding which type of home works best for them.

Key Takeaways

  • Townhouses, which are generally attached to other residences, are defined by ownership—which includes the land the home is situated on, front and backyard areas, and the home's exterior.
  • Condominiums provide the most hands-off approach to homeownership and are physically indistinguishable from rental apartments.
  • Condos are often cheaper than townhouses because they come with no land; the exterior and land are considered common areas shared by all residents.
  • Condo owners pay monthly homeowner association (HOA) fees that can be significantly higher than those on townhouses, partly because they cover exterior maintenance.
  • Detached homes often provide owners with the most freedom when it comes to improving the structures or the land that comes with them, but they may lack many of the amenities of condos and townhouses.
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How Does Condominium Ownership Work?

What Is a Townhouse?

Less experienced home shoppers may 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 because 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 their home's exterior.

Additionally, townhouse communities generally have homeowner associations (HOAs). Owners pay monthly dues to cover insurance and maintenance of the community's common areas, as well as for services such 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.

What Is a Condo?

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, in part because they come with no land. The exterior of the units, plus the land around them, is considered a common area and owned collectively by all the 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 their fees may be 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; as well as services like 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. Townhouse vs. House

Situated on their own lots, detached homes tend to 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 type of home is the freestanding structure; there are no neighbors with whom to share walls.

Like condos and townhouses, some detached homes, especially in urban and suburban areas, may have HOAs, but the fees are usually minimal and cover no more than snow and trash removal and shared road maintenance. And many detached houses have no HOAs at all. Those provide the most independence and freedom of choice.

Detached houses appeal to people who want large yards for their children to play in and room for other structures, such as a detached garage or workshop. Detached-home ownership is also the right call for people who do not mind yard work or who yearn for a big garden.

On the other hand, unless the detached house is part of a community, it may not have some of the amenities that come with many condos and townhouses, such as a swimming pool, fitness club, or tennis court.

Condo vs. Townhouse vs. House: Key Differences
 Condominium  Townhouse Detached House
Initial cost Often the least expensive housing option Typically less costly than a detached house Prices range widely by size and location
Ongoing fees Monthly dues to homeowner association Monthly dues to homeowner association Generally none
What you own Your individual unit, but not the land or other common areas Your home plus the land it sits on and possibly a yard Your house plus the land under and around it
Amenities Condos often have shared amenities like a swimming pool or fitness club May also have shared amenities like a swimming pool or fitness club Amenities depend on what was there when you bought or have since added
Responsibilities You aren't responsible for mowing the lawn or other upkeep          You aren't responsible for mowing the lawn or other upkeep  Lawn mowing, snow removal, repairs, etc. are your responsibility
Autonomy An owners association may impose rules you'll be expected to follow You may also be subject to the rules of an owners association Unless there's an owners association, you can do as you please within the limits of the law

Who Should Buy What

The decision of whether to buy a townhouse or condo—or to opt for a detached house—usually boils down to cost, 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 condo or townhouse, upgrading to a detached house only after learning what it takes to keep up a home.

Established buyers who want space for their growing families and those who do not want to be subject to an HOA's rules will benefit the most from buying detached homes.

And at the other end of the age spectrum, older boomers may benefit from the lower costs and reduced responsibilities of living in a townhouse or condo instead of a detached house. A condo usually requires the least work, leaving owners free to travel and enjoy their leisure time.