Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Townhouses an Appealing Choice For Buyers

Many cash-tight homebuyers are holding out for their ideal property. But rather than continuing to wait, some real estate experts suggest they compromise.

One plausible compromise for buyers in high-cost areas could be to purchase a townhouse they could upgrade later, says Tom Woods, a veteran homebuilder. As he notes, in many popular metro areas where land is expensive, opting for a townhouse gets you more living space for the money than buying a detached home.

He encourages young purchasers to consider the pluses of an affordable property with basic appliances that could be updated later when money allows.

In selecting a home, he encourages first-time buyers to place a higher priority on location than on the type of property they select.

"For this younger generation, their lifestyle doesn't revolve around the car. They want a close-in neighborhood with more restaurants and entertainment, like places for concerts and a sports arena. They also like walkability and public transportation options," he says.

Given that prices are high in many close-in neighborhoods, Woods says it could be smart for city-oriented buyers to choose an affordable city townhouse over a classic suburban home with a big yard.

But he says young buyers pondering the purchase of a close-in townhouse over a detached suburban place should also factor in the location of their jobs, along with their favorite pastimes and preferences.

Tom Early, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, says many young singles and couples who enjoy city living are often happier in a modest city townhouse than in a larger place in an outlying suburb.

"A townhouse can be the ideal choice for people from their mid-20s to early 30s who don't yet have kids and aren't yet looking for a neighborhood with a playground," Early says.

"Granted, you're going to have to share walls with other neighbors. Also, you could be barred from painting your front door fluorescent purple. Townhouses aren't great for rugged individualists. But they're excellent for people who travel a lot or want an easygoing lifestyle," Early says.

Here are a few pointers for townhouse buyers:

-- Factor in the property's appreciation potential.

It can be tiring to hear that the prospect of appreciation is extremely important when it comes to the selection of real estate. But this principle remains true across time, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "Home Buying For Dummies."

Tyson urges buyers to look for a neighborhood served by good quality public schools and public transportation.

-- Look for a townhouse with an open interior.

Nowadays, most homebuyers strongly favor an airy, bright habitat. 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, Early says.

"To get a more open feeling, look for a townhouse that's wider than average. Also, look for one with larger-than-average windows. But remember that big windows typically translate to higher energy costs," he says.

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

-- Make sure you'll have ample parking for your guests.

Newer townhouses are typically built to give each unit a one- or two-car garage. That means your own parking needs should be met. But what about the visitors to your home?

"It's important for townhouse owners to feel confident that their friends and family members will not face lots of hassles when they come over," Early says.

He recommends that the best way to scope out the parking situation near your townhouse is to ask those already living there about their experience with parking in the common areas of the complex.

"You should get candid opinions about all the pros and cons of life in the community through informal conversations with residents there. ... (I)t can be particularly helpful if you go back there to talk to neighbors without your real estate agent at your side," Early says.

-- Seek out a townhouse community where residents live harmoniously.

In nearly all townhouse communities, residents are bound together through membership in a residents' association. As Early says, the quality of leadership in that group can make a major difference.

"The point is to find a community where people can reach consensus through calm conversation rather than heated arguments," Early says.

A well-functioning association sets aside money for major expenses, like the replacement of a roof. Otherwise, everyone living in the community could be hit with a special assessment, which can mean a large addition to your monthly homeowners' fees.

To investigate the operations of a townhouse association, Early suggests you ask for minutes of its last three meetings to see if major disputes are brewing within the organization.

"It can be misery to live in a community where everyone is constantly squabbling over issues both large and small," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at