The (Surprising) Differences Between a Condo and a Townhouse

published May 24, 2024
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Row of colorful, red, yellow, blue, white, green painted residential townhouses, homes, houses with brick patio gardens in summer
Credit: Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock

You might think telling the difference between a condo vs. a townhouse is a no-brainer. But you would be wrong. While you may already know the difference between a condo and an apartment, there are subtle differences and nuances between both condos and townhouses that makes their differences harder to discern. Not all condos, for example, are located in tall buildings, and not all townhomes are connected in a neat row. So what’s the real difference between a condo and a townhouse, and why does it matter? Here’s what to know.

Quick Overview

What Is a Condo vs. a Townhouse?

A condominium is a single unit of a larger housing structure — it can be in a high-rise building or part of a converted multifamily structure, and you may pay fees to a condo association. Most townhouses are single family units, often made up of multiple floors and often have access to a yard or outdoor space. Townhomes may be part of an HOA.

What Is a Condo?

A condominium, simply put, is a single unit of a larger housing structure. As the owner, everything within the walls of the unit belong to you, but the exterior and any common areas are owned and managed by the condo association and maintained by your payment of a monthly fee.

If you live in a city, you might envision a condo as an apartment in a high-rise building. But not all condo complexes look like the buildings that dot city skylines. Some might be part of what was once a multifamily structure converted into individual condos or apartments, says Nicole Beauchamp, associate broker at Sotheby’s International Realty. And if you live in a more suburban area, especially one that has a sprawling 55+ community, condos are often built in lower, multilevel structures with private entrances to each unit.

What Is a Townhouse?

Like its name suggests, a townhouse is similar in appearance to a house — in that it often comprises multiple levels, and offers access to a front yard and/or a backyard. Most townhouses are single-family homes that are attached to a neighboring townhouse on one or both sides. But Beauchamp says some townhouses are multifamily depending on their design, and she’s even held listings for detached townhomes in New York City. Ultimately, it’s up to the local government and zoning laws for how real property is actually classified.

Although you own your townhome, if yours happens to be part of a homeowner’s association (HOA), you will be required to pay a monthly fee for maintenance of common areas, including parking lots and other shared amenities. 

Owning a Lifestyle, Not Just a Home

It’s fair to say that when you purchase any property, you’re also purchasing a particular lifestyle in terms of your new home’s size, design, and location, among other factors. This is especially true when it comes to purchasing either a townhouse or a condo. Let’s take a look at some of the factors to consider:

Condo/Homeowners Association

Condos are owned and maintained by a condo association that charges monthly fees used to maintain common areas like parking lots, walkways, on-site gyms, and more. 

The terms “Condo association” and “HOA” might be used interchangeably, but an HOA is actually for homes and townhouses only. Both have rules to keep the property and common spaces safe and well-maintained. However, HOAs in particular can be notorious for their strict rules regarding exterior paint color, landscaping, and even outdoor holiday decor. 

“It’s always very important if there is any type of homeowners association that [homeowners] understand and get clarity as early as possible on what they are responsible for,” Beauchamp says. That includes financial commitments and what those fees go for. Most importantly, buyers need to comprehend what they are responsible for in terms of maintaining their home, “which is typically, in essence, everything,” she says.

For example, if you have to replace an appliance in your townhouse, that’s on you to purchase it and schedule its installation. In a condo, you might have to go through a rigorous process with a vetted appliance company/installer. 

In short, you’ll most likely have to check in with the property manager and/or condo association before you make any repairs or improvements in your condo. That’s not usually the case with a townhouse. 

Varying Levels of Privacy

Most condos are like apartments, in that you’re sharing multiple walls with your neighbors — not to mention the hallway that leads to your entrance if it’s in a high-rise building. You’d have to score a top-floor corner condo to have the most privacy, and it should come as no surprise that it would be among the priciest condos you’ll encounter on a house hunt.

Condos in some low-rise buildings offer private entrances, with staircases and even elevators taking you to each floor. But if a condo is nestled somewhere in a high-rise, it could take some time to exit and re-enter your home every day — and that’s even if you catch the elevator just as it arrives at your floor. There’s also usually some type of secure double entrance on the ground floor, and many luxury buildings have door staff. 

Townhomes typically have shared walls on one or both sides, but the units are usually single-family, meaning you have no one above or below you in your own unit. (Again, there are exceptions to this rule.) End unit townhomes that share a wall on only one side are highly coveted for (slightly) more privacy, and their price tag can reflect that. Regardless of where your townhome is in the row, it usually is like a regular home with a private, street-level entrance that you alone are responsible for locking and securing.

Access to Outdoor Space

Unless you own a condo with a terrace, you’ll have to settle for sharing outdoor space with your neighbors. In some condo communities, this could mean a pool, walking trails, or a rooftop deck. (Lucky for those who have all three!) 

A townhouse, on the other hand, usually has access to a private front and/or backyard. It’s this reason that homeowners with a flexible budget choose a townhome over a condo.

Your lifestyle preference and budget will likely determine whether you’ll buy a condo or a townhouse, though in some areas prices do rival single-family houses. But aside from how it’s actually classified, your new place should feel like a home above all.