Smart Moves

The Ins and Outs of Townhouses

When Tom Woods was 21, he bought his first house -- a large single family place with a huge yard in a bucolic town outside Kansas City, Missouri. But now at age 70, he says the preferences of young homebuyers are dramatically different than when he was young.

Woods, a homebuilder who’s constructed more than 3,500 houses for clients, says the choices of buyers in their 20s and 30s are now driven much more by a hankering for community and what builders call the “amenities package” than for acreage. And that means they’re willing to consider a townhouse.

“They want the swimming pool, the tennis courts and the workout facilities. They’re much more likely to get those amenities in a townhouse development than in the classic single-family home community,” says Woods, a former board chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org).

In many areas, buyers can obtain somewhat more square footage in a townhouse than in a single-family property that’s listed for the same price. That’s because builders can construct more townhouse units on an equivalent parcel of land.

Buying a townhouse can be an excellent solution for young singles or couples who’d rather devote their time to their profession or social life than to upkeep, given that exterior maintenance is usually provided in townhouse communities. That’s also a plus for people with heavy travel schedules.

But choosing a townhouse means losing out on some of the benefits of a detached home. For instance, your backyard will be too small for a garden or much recreation.

Another negative is that you’re going to have at least one shared wall with neighbors. And you’ll probably be prohibited from painting your front door iridescent orange. That’s a factor for rugged individualists who want to personalize the home they own.

Steve Israel, a real estate broker who works solely with buyers, cautions that living in a townhouse can mean a significant loss of privacy, even if its interior walls were well constructed.

“Builders are putting a lot more sound-deafening stuff in townhouses these days than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. But you’re still going to lose privacy to neighbors when they’re outside around the exterior of your place,” Israel says.

Here are a few tips for those considering a townhouse purchase:

-- Look for a place with an expansive interior.

These days, most buyers strongly favor an open, airy, bright house. But many townhouses, especially older ones, have relatively few windows and are narrow from side to side and deep from the front door to the back, says Merrill Ottwein, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

“Try to find a townhouse that’s wider than average. In addition, search for a place where rooms are mostly square rather than rectangular and one with oversized windows. But keep in mind that big windows usually translate to higher energy costs,” Ottwein says.

Another way to obtain a more open, airy feeling in a townhouse is to buy one with high ceilings.

“The good news is that lots of new homes of all types now have ceilings that are at least 10 feet high or higher,” he says.

-- Recognize the importance of adequate parking.

Many newer townhouses are built to give each unit a one- or two-car garage. In those cases, your personal parking needs will likely be met. But what about your visitors?

Ottwein recommends that the best way to scope out the parking situation near your townhouse is to ask those already living there.

“What you need is more than the rehearsed statements of those trying to sell you a unit in their townhouse community. You need the candid opinions of neighbors who already reside there,” Ottwein says.

-- Watch out for indications of disputes within a townhouse community.

It’s a reality that in nearly all townhouse communities, residents are bound together through membership in a residents' association. As Ottwein says, the quality of leadership in that group can make a major difference for owners.

"Be careful to avoid moving to a community where owners often confront each other with their petty disputes. Rather, you want residents who can settle their differences without becoming disagreeable,” he says.

Those in a smoothly functioning association are more likely to set aside money for major expenses, like the replacement of a roof. Otherwise, everyone living in the community could suddenly be hit with a special assessment.

To find out how the homeowners’ association in a townhouse community functions, Ottwein suggests you ask for minutes of its last three meetings to see if disputes are brewing.

“It can be terribly nerve-racking to live in a community where the residents are constantly fighting. Avoid that kind of grief and you’ll be a lot happier,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)

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