Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Townhouse Tips for Easy Living

When it comes to housing trends, two are in near-perfect sync right now. Homebuyers suffering from sticker shock are increasingly interested in the price-per-square-foot advantage of choosing a townhouse over a detached property. Meanwhile, builders struggling with rising costs are increasingly favorable to townhouse construction.

Although townhouses now represent just 13 percent of all new single-family homes, their market share is gaining steadily, says Danushka Nanayakkara, a senior economist for the National Association of Home Builders (nahb.org).

“Millennials want median-density residential neighborhoods in walkable environments, where townhouses are more common. This is now the largest population cohort of homebuyers,” Nanayakkara says.

Though she notes that townhouses typically come with smaller yards than detached homes, this is acceptable to many first-time buyers in their 20s or early 30s. At the same time, developers save money when they build on the smaller lots that townhouses require.

Tom Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org), says people pondering the purchase of a townhouse should seriously think through the trade-offs.

“Most townhouses are very vertical, and that translates to loads of stairs,” Early says.

And though townhouses often come with far less maintenance and upkeep demands than detached homes, there is a downside.

“Face it, because of all the rules, townhouses aren’t great for rugged individualists. For example, you’ll be barred from painting your front door fluorescent orange,” he says.

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

-- Place a premium on location.

It can be tiring to hear that location should beat all other factors when it comes to choosing a home. But this principle remains true, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “Home Buying for Dummies.”

Tyson urges you to look for a neighborhood served by high-quality schools, even if you have no plans for children. Also, he encourages you to seek easy access to such popular amenities as movie theaters, cafes and stores. In addition, look for an area near well-rated public transit.

“Already, we’re seeing close-in communities appreciate faster than those far outside metro areas. This trend will only accelerate in the future,” Tyson says.

Even people who would prefer a detached house might consider buying a townhouse in a coveted neighborhood if that’s all they can afford there. That’s because over time, as Tyson says, you can anticipate that the townhouse in the premier area will be a better investment than a traditional detached home in a weaker area.

-- Look for a townhouse with an expansive interior.

Nowadays, most buyers strongly favor an open, airy, bright house. But many townhouses have relatively few windows, are narrow from side to side and deep from front to back.

“To get a more open feeling, try to find a townhouse that’s wider than average. Also, look for one where the rooms are square rather than rectangular and one with larger-than-average windows. But remember that big windows typically mean higher energy costs,” Early says.

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

“Luckily, lots of new townhouses have ceilings that are at least 10 feet high or higher. That way, the rooms seem larger and people feel less cramped,” Early says.

-- Don’t trade off adequate parking.

New 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 visitors to your home?

“Many people are unhappy after moving to any place that forces their friends and family to hunt and hunt for parking,” Early says.

He tells clients the best way to scope out the parking situation near a townhouse complex is to ask those already living there about their experience with parking in the common areas of the community.

-- Look for a harmonious community.

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

"Search for a community where people can reach consensus harmoniously rather than through arguments and petty disagreements,” he says.

Well-functioning associations set aside money for major expenses, like the replacement of a roof or renovation of a pool house. Otherwise, everyone living in the community could be hit with a special assessment -- which could mean a steep increase in your monthly association 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 pending within the organization.

“Don’t move to a place where neighbors are squabbling or you’re at risk for a bad case of buyer’s remorse,” he says.

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