When a couple asks me if a particular home is a condo or a townhouse, I usually reply, “Yes.” Then comes the explanation. You see, a condominium is a form of ownership, while a townhouse is a form of construction, so a property can be one, or both, or neither.
A condo(minium) is a property in which you only own the interior, but not the outside of the home or the land on which it sits. Rules vary, but in a condo you are not responsible for the roof, siding and deck, as well as maintenance of the lawn, trees and shrubs near the home. Anything inside the home—including all the plumbing and wiring—is yours to love, insure and maintain.
A townhouse is any home that shares at least one wall with its neighbor, and it can have any number of stories. Technically then, a duplex is a form of a townhouse, so you’ll find duplexes listed along with condos and townhomes in multiple listing services. (Stay with me, class.)
A townhouse can be called a townhome, or town house, or town home. They all mean the same thing, and are important only if you are searching for homes on Google using keywords.
However. Humans tend to name things a certain way in order to make clarity out of a technical jumble. So everyone—including real estate agents—uses a simple rule: Townhouses are homes that are attached to their neighbors, have two or more stories and have no one living above or below the unit. Condos are one-level homes that resemble apartments, and are stacked on top of and alongside one another. If that’s what you thought all along, you were correct.
Sometimes a two-story townhouse can sit on top of a single-level condo, which makes things really fun to describe to potential buyers. The whole naming thing is important only in defining the home you want. (“I tap dance in the living room, so I can’t live in a condo.”)
Since both types of homes are usually condominiums, in both cases you get to pay a maintenance fee for the privilege of having someone else shovel your walk and cut your grass. There may be a management company or a homeowners association or both. The fact that there’s a monthly fee is a safe bet that you’re talking about a condo, but there are exceptions to that rule as well.
The opposite of condominium ownership is “fee simple” ownership, where you get to own and take care of your home and the land on which it sits. Virtually all single family houses are fee simple, and you can happily tear the entire house down and build another in its place, provided you abide by all zoning laws.
If you think about this, it is possible then to own a townhouse that is fee simple or a house that is a condominium. Before you get too confused, just make sure that your real estate agent fully describes the home you are considering, including any homeowners association fees and your right to change anything on the property. To make the situation even more interesting, lenders have different mortgage rules for condos, townhouses and houses, so the exact description of the property is critical.
But this is not rocket science. Describe the home you want and your preferred lifestyle, and I will be happy to research your choices and advise you on the pros and cons of each. After all, what we call things and what attorneys call them is irrelevant, and they don’t count. You pay the mortgage, so you get to call your castle whatever you want.