So, What’s Actually Considered a “Duplex”?

updated Nov 16, 2022
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The first airplane movie I ever watched was “Duplex,” in which Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller play a couple who think they’ve found their dream duplex in Brooklyn but find out their perfect home is actually a nightmare: Their upstairs neighbor is a kooky old lady who goes out of her way to make their life hell on real estate earth. The couple is so tormented, that they end up evicting themselves, yet antics still ensue!

The so-bad-it’s-good 2003 movie stuck with me that when I grew up, got a job, made money, and decided to buy a home, I automatically ruled duplexes out. Did I really want to live somewhere where I could potentially share a wall with a bad neighbor? Then, after I looked at the home prices I reconsidered, realizing maybe I shouldn’t write an entire type of house off because of an airplane movie. Are there actually any upsides to living in a duplex or are they less expensive for a reason? I did some digging.

What qualifies as a duplex?

A duplex is one building with two units that are either stacked vertically or side-by-side. They might be listed as a “multi-family dwelling,” as they offer space for more than just one family. A duplex will have separate entrances for each unit, and sometimes they have separate garages and outdoor spaces, too. There are also triplexes and quadplexes, which are exactly what they sound like: a standalone building with either three or four separate living spaces.

In some cities, like New York or Chicago, a “duplex” may also refer to a single unit in a multi-family building spread across two floors. These are also known as “maisonettes.”

What’s the difference between a duplex, townhouse, condo, and an apartment?

To sum it up: The biggest difference between a duplex, townhouse, condo, and an apartment is who owns what. A duplex has a single owner who owns the entire building and usually either lives in one unit and rents out the other or rents out both units and lives elsewhere.

A townhouse is similar to a duplex, except that instead of having one owner, it can have multiple. Each owner owns both their unit’s interior and exterior structure, as well as any outdoor areas. However, in certain townhouses, amenities, like a pool, can be shared by all occupants. Unlike duplexes, townhomes usually don’t have living spaces stacked vertically but do share walls.

Condos are similar to duplexes and townhomes in that they can be multi-story spaces and that the units share walls. But with a condo, owners only own their unit’s interior. Everything exterior (e.g. the walls of the building, shared outdoor areas, the pool, and garage) is owned by the homeowners association (HOA), and unit owners pay a monthly fee to cover maintenance of shared spaces.

Lastly, apartments are multi-family buildings with several units (sometimes hundreds) rented out to tenants. All units are owned by one person, a group of investors, or a corporation. Also, because units in duplexes and townhomes can be rented out, sometimes they can be referred to as apartments as well.

Can a duplex be a single-family home?

A duplex is a multi-family home since it provides two separate living spaces. However, a duplex can be converted into a single-family home—with a few walls knocked down, and any extra kitchens, entrance doors, and garages removed. However, it’ll require a pretty big investment. 

Why a duplex could be a smart real estate purchase

If you’re thinking about buying an investment property, a duplex could be super appealing: You could live in one unit and rent out the other. And if the tenant calls about a broken faucet, you wouldn’t have to schlep all the way across town to check it out.

Plus, this strategy could increase your borrowing potential and make it easier to get a mortgage: “Buying a duplex helps you afford to buy a more expensive property than you could qualify to afford without a tenant,” says Beatrice de Jong, consumer trends expert at Opendoor. This is because lenders count your tenant’s future rent as part of your income.

However, as with all investment properties, there are always risks. Tenants could cause you minor inconveniences, like being too loud or messy, or they could pose a bigger threat, like if they have trouble paying rent on time. There also could be other unplanned out-of-pocket expenses, like if there’s overlap between tenants. If you’re generally counting on a tenant’s rent to make your mortgage, you should consider how to mitigate these risks as soon as possible.

Should you rent a duplex unit?

Renting a unit in a duplex is almost like renting a home, except you have one neighbor who shares a wall with you. You’ll also have way more privacy (and space!) than you would living in an apartment. Other perks commonly include more outdoor space and an in-unit washer and dryer. Sweet!

The downsides? You might be living right next door to your landlord—which could be a good or bad thing. And unlike an apartment complex, you most likely won’t have access to a 24/7 maintenance team.

As for affordability, it all depends on where you live: In New York City, some duplex apartments are some of the most expensive rental properties. They can cost a reasonable $2,400 a month in Kensington, Brooklyn for a one-bedroom, two-bathroom unit, all the way up to $15,000 a month for a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath unit in Manhattan’s West Village.

In other metro areas, however, a duplex is generally more affordable than a single-dwelling house. According to Rentberry, the rent for a duplex averages $1,084 a month in Virginia Beach, Virginia; $1,887 in in Dallas, Texas; and $919 in Tallahassee, Florida. Even in Los Angeles, you can find a three-bed, one-bath duplex in Echo Park for $2,795 a month.

What are the prices of some duplexes for sale? Are duplexes a more affordable option for a buyer?

Again, it depends on the housing market where you live, but purchasing a duplex is (usually) more affordable than buying two separate houses. “Since the mortgage can qualify as an owner-occupied property, this also saves money versus buying a separate investment property,” de Jong says.

For example, while Zillow puts the current median listing price for single-family homes in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles at $510,000, there is a six-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex on the market for $749,000. In Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Thomas Dale neighborhood, the median listing price for a single-family home is $170,100, but a six-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex is on the market for only $175,000.

How do you find a duplex near you?

You can use a listing service like Zillow, Redfin, or Trulia to find local duplexes on the market. You can sniff around Craigslist as well, but it may be harder to narrow down your specific criteria. You can also get professional guidance by looking up a rental agency or real estate brokerage in your city.

I’ve learned a lot about the pros and cons of renting and buying a duplex since that airplane ride, but I will say “Duplex” did end up teaching me at least one valuable lesson: The importance of really getting to know who your neighbors are before you sign the lease or rent it out. And if you have the means and don’t want to deal with sharing space with other humans, look into renting or buying a single-family home.

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