Housing choices abound, especially in urban areas, leaving many first-time home buyers 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 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, as 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, townhouse communities generally have 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 town house 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 town houses. 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, as well as 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.

1:28

An Introduction to Buying a Condominium

Condo or Townhouse 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 whom to share walls.

Like condos and townhouses, 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. And many detached houses are located in towns, villages and rural areas with no HOA at all. These provide the most independence and freedom of choice.

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-home ownership is also the right call for people who do not mind yardwork or 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 some condos and townhomes, such as a swimming pool, fitness club or tennis courts.

The decision of whether to buy a townhouse or condo—or 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 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.
  •  And at the other end of the age spectrum, Boomers may benefit from the lower costs and reduced responsibilities of living in a townhouse or condo instead of a detached house. A condo has the fewest responsibilities attached to it.