What exactly IS a townhome?

First, let’s all agree that a townhome usually has at least two stories, but you can have a “ranch style townhome” or “rambler style townhome”. Usually there is no one over or under you in a townhome, except sometimes, like in Sixty-01, they occasionally stuff a condo under the two story townhome. In the Seattle area a townhome usually has a garage on the first level, main living areas on the second level and bedrooms on the third level. When there is a view involved, especially a water view, it is better to but the main living areas at the top and the bedrooms on the lower levels.

But why is a townhome sometimes a condominium, and sometimes a single family dwelling? Why is it sometimes a single family dwelling when it is attached to other townhomes, and sometimes a condominium when it is not attached at all?

The phrase townhome was coined by the real estate industry to “upgrade” the term rowhome. Many major cities, like my Philadelphia, have had rowhomes for over a hundred years. As many as twenty five all attached together with no break until you get to the “end of row” or “breezeway”. When builders started building attached dwellings out in the suburbs, they didn’t want to call them “rowhomes” and so came up with the term “townhomes”. Very upscale areas started calling their rowhomes, townhomes, and so the term was created and expanded.

Very simply, if you own the land under the townhome all by yourself, meaning the lots are subdivided at every shared wall from the front of the lot to the back of the lot, then it is a single family townhome or “single family attached”, much like the original “rowhome”.

[photopress:townhomes.jpg,thumb,alignright]If the lot is not subdivided and you build two or more separately owned structures on one lot, whether they are attached or not, they are condominiums. As far as I know, condominiums are always built on land that is shared and not subdivided per each individual owner. So if you put two separate houses on one lot and sell them to two different people, they are condominium townhomes. If you attach 25 homes in a row, but subdivide the lots so that they own their front yard and back yard and the land under their house, they are single family dwellings.

I always say, when you are sitting in your house, if you own the land under your butt all by yourself, it is a single family dwelling. If the land under your butt is jointly owned with other people, then it is a condominium πŸ™‚

14 thoughts on “What exactly IS a townhome?

  1. If the dues are $300 a MONTH, it is usually, but not always, a condo townhome. If the dues are $300 a YEAR, it is almost always a single family townhome and you are responsible for your roof and exterior of the building. Use common sense. If the dues are not high enough for someone else to take care of the exterior, they probably don’t.

  2. The loose and fast way many realtors interchange terms drives me nuts. In our area, many will use ghost listings or list their home as “residential/attached dwelling” in order to get it to appear in more searches. When I’m analyzing the market in Excel, it means just one more extra irritating steps to clean up the data…

    Was that venting?

  3. I wish you had posted this last week Ardell!! I had someone grilling me about the differences of the two and i was fumbling around trying to get at what you said in this post!


  4. I love the single famly attached option for first time buyers because the monthly fee is often (but not always) $50 or less. But you have to evaluate the roof and exterior the same as any single family home. No one is coming to fix your roof if the dues are only $300 a year!

    Giles, I take a piece of scratch paper and draw a street down the middle. I put four attached homes (just boxes, you don’t have to be an artist πŸ™‚ on each side of the street. On one side I leave them all in one big lot. On the other side I draw lines between the homes separating the lots. People get this really fast. Four on one lot equals condo townhome. Four on four separate lots equals single family attached.

    I sold one in Kirkland on 133rd place in December that had a fee of $350 a year in Upland Green I sold one a week ago in Bellevue that had a fee of $168, and while it was a single family attached (PUD), the fee did include the roof and exterior and pool maintenance There were also special assessments, but it was not a condo.

    It is important not to make assumptions and to study each one, hoever if the fees are only $350 a year, you can pretty much count on being mostly on your own as to maintenance of your home.

    Osman, we have the opposite issue. Many want to put the single family attached townhome in with the condo townhomes so that buyers won’t miss them Many get permission to list them both ways and put in the remarks “This is a PUD NOT a condo!

  5. Hey, we could always add to the fun by throwing out the phrase “zero-lot line.” 90% of the buyers I work with (and a surprising number of the realtors I know…) don’t really seem to know what that even means.

  6. Sandy,

    How have you been? It’s been so long since I’ve heard from you! Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen a blog entry from you in quite a while… Are you still blogging?

  7. Pingback: Seattle’s Rain City Real Estate Guide » Beginning the Home Buying Process - Part 2

Leave a Reply