Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Buying a Townhouse, on a Serious Tip

At age 30, Gabrielle Bosche and her attorney husband are content living in a rental apartment in Fairfax, Virginia, where they enjoy a handy fitness facility within their building. But like many young adults, they’re keen on homeownership and soon intend to buy a townhouse in the same area.

Bosche, who heads a consulting group on millennial issues, says that in their preference for an affordable townhouse over a detached property, she and her husband are typical of many in their generation who enjoy a more communal lifestyle than did their baby boomer parents.

“Millennials ... (are) steeped in social media but want authentic interpersonal relationships. That’s why living in a close townhouse community is very comfortable for them,” says Bosche, the author of “Five Millennial Myths.”

Marc Angelo, a real estate broker in Portland, Oregon, says his millennial clients would rather buy a diminutive townhouse in a lively city neighborhood than an equally priced but much larger detached property 10 miles outside the city.

“Young buyers want to live around people with energy and ideas, a place where they can walk to a grocery store and restaurants. To get all that at an affordable price, a townhouse can be the perfect solution,” Angelo says.

But he cautions buyers to make sure they don’t choose a city neighborhood that’s noisy and crowded on weekend evenings.

Here are a few other pointers for buyers focused on the purchase of an urban townhouse:

-- Screen for a townhouse with an expansive interior.

Nowadays, most buyers strongly favor an open, airy and 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 Tom Early, a veteran Ohio real estate broker.

“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, with larger-than-average windows. However, remember that big windows typically translate to higher energy costs,” says Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

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

-- Don’t overlook the importance of ample parking.

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 to visit,” Early says.

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

“You should get unvarnished opinions about all the pros and cons of life in the community through informal conversations with the neighbors there. It can be particularly helpful to go back to the area without your real estate agent at your side,” Early says.

-- Search for a convivial townhouse community.

It’s a fact of life that 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 for residents.

"The point is to search for a community where people can reach consensus harmoniously, rather than through arguments and petty disagreements,” Early says.

Those who bond together in a well-functioning association 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 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.

“The last thing you want is to live in a community where everyone is squabbling over minor issues or large ones,” he says.

-- Don’t sacrifice a good location when you buy.

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

What constitutes a location where you can reasonably expect strong or rising property values? Tyson urges you to look for a neighborhood served by high-quality public schools, even if you have no plans for children.

Even those who would prefer a detached house might consider buying a townhouse in a coveted city 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 single-family home in a weaker area.

“For real estate, one reality remains constant through time and economic cycles. That is that location tops all other factors in defining value,” Tyson says.

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