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What Is a Townhome Anyway?

A row of multi-color attached townhouses

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

If you’re househunting in the city, you’ve likely come across more than a few listings for townhouses. As the name implies, these are houses that were designed to fit into densely populated towns and cities, and fit a lot of living space into a small parcel of land. These houses can be built in any sort of architectural style, come in all manner of sizes, and have layouts dictated by the size of the lot they’re on. There really is only one true defining characteristic of townhouses, and that’s the fact that they share walls with their neighbors. 

What Is a Townhouse?

Townhouses are multi-story single-family homes that share at least one wall with a neighboring house. 

Townhouses, also known as rowhouses, are built in groups, with each house sharing one or both of their side walls; in real estate, this is known as an “attached” house. Townhouses are more compact than detached homes, but they don’t necessarily lack in square footage; most townhomes spread their rooms over two or three stories, but more spacious models can have four or more levels. 

Townhomes were originally built in cities where real estate was at a premium, and developers needed to squeeze multiple homes into small lots of land; in densely populated cities like New York, it’s rare to see detached houses outside of suburban neighborhoods. 

Townhouses have long been touted as an affordable option for first-time homeowners, but this is no longer true in most major cities, where they can sell for millions of dollars. Today’s affordable townhouse can be found in the suburbs, where they’ve become a popular housing style in planned communities. These developments can feature shared amenities like pools, recreation areas, fitness centers, and other communal facilities. But, unlike apartments, owners do not share any entries or common areas with their neighbors.

Townhouse Communities 

In planned and gated communities, townhouses have a key difference from condo or co-op developments: the owners fully own the home and the land it sits on. This means that homeowners are responsible for the maintenance of all aspects of the home, inside and outside, whereas in condo or co-op developments, things like the roof, plumbing, hot water heaters, air conditioning compressors, landscaping, and other utilities are the responsibility of the community’s management. 

Though the idea of owning a home outright is attractive to many potential homebuyers, it’s worth mentioning that repairing leaky roofs and HVAC systems can run into tens of thousands of dollars. For those who prefer not to worry about such things, a condo or co-op development may be a better choice. 

In a planned community, townhouse owners may be governed by a  homeowner’s association, or HOA, which oversees the maintenance and management of the community’s common areas and amenities, and is made up of an elected board of homeowners. 

Are Townhouses Private?

what is a townhouse? upper east side townhome

Charles Bladen/Getty Images

When considering townhouse living, many homebuyers express concern about noise travelling through the shared walls; depending on how they were constructed, some townhouses don’t afford the owner full privacy, as loud conversations and activities — such as vacuuming and watching television — can be heard by their neighbors. This noise pollution goes both ways: if you have noisy neighbors, you may be bothered by the sound. 

It’s typical to expect a certain amount of sound pollution in older townhomes, but in more modern constructions, developers have been able to use new soundproofing materials and building technology to keep disturbances to a minimum. If you’re considering a townhouse with thin shared walls, there are some affordable ways to reduce the noise and protect your privacy, like adding built-in closets, or lining the walls with tall pieces of furniture such as bookcases and armoires.