A townhouse or townhome is a house that shares walls with some of the adjacent buildings. As a townhouse owner, you generally own your house from the walls and roof on in as well as any front or back yard on your property. Before buying a townhouse, you'll want to know exactly what you're buying and what your responsibilities will be, including whether you'll be paying dues to a homeowners' association and how you'll be required to maintain the house under local laws and HOA rules.
Townhouse vs. House vs. Condominium
Legally owning a townhouse often isn't that different from owning a stand-alone, suburban-style house. You purchase the house, including its exterior walls and roof and the land underneath it. If the townhouse has a yard, garden or driveway, that's usually yours as well. You're responsible for maintaining the interior and exterior of your townhouse for your own comfort and to keep the property in compliance with any local ordinances and the rules of your homeowners' association if you're in one.
You may be required to keep your yard tidy, remove leaves, snow and ice from your sidewalk or even keep your building painted a particular color. Make sure you understand what you're getting into in terms of local ordinances and HOA rules before you make a purchase.
That's different from owning a condominium, where you normally own only the space within the walls of your building or unit, with the rest owned by a condominium association. With a condo, generally shared spaces like yards, private roads and walks are owned by the association, and you're not required to hire your own contractors or do your own maintenance to keep them in good shape. You usually pay condo fees and elect a condo association board to handle these types of tasks.
What Homeowners' Associations Do
Homeowners' associations can play a similar role in maintaining shared amenities, like pools, gyms or clubhouses in developments of townhouses or stand-alone homes, but not every development has one and not every association provides the same amenities. Fees or dues are generally lower than condo fees since they provide less comprehensive support. No matter what type of home you're buying, make sure you know what you're legally purchasing and what your obligations and monthly costs will be.
Townhouse Maintenance Costs and Obligations
Before you buy any property, it's a good idea to make sure you understand what kind of maintenance will be required and how much it may cost. With a townhouse, this will be separate from your mortgage payment, your property tax, your homeowners' insurance payments and any HOA dues you may pay.
You generally will have a home inspector examine the property before you buy it, and the inspector can alert you to potential red flags, including structural issues with walls and roofs, pest problems, issues with heating and cooling systems and other signs that you may have to repair the home soon after you purchase it.
Certain costs, including heating and cooling, can be lower in a townhouse than a stand-alone home since the adjacent buildings help to keep in heat or cool air. If your yard is relatively small, it can naturally be cheaper to water, mow and otherwise maintain than a larger yard on another property.
Risks of Owning a Townhouse
Since your townhouse will be adjacent to other people's properties, they may be more sensitive to you promptly taking care of visible townhouse maintenance issues since nobody wants to live next to a house with peeling paint or an unsightly front yard. You may want to take a good look at the nearby homes to make sure there are no blight issues or signs that people nearby have a noisy lifestyle since that will be hard to escape when you're living side by side. It is also important to stay on top of pest issues since insects and rodents can easily travel between properties if they're not nipped in the bud.
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology and business. He has written for a variety of business publications including Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Leader and Ad Age. He was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.