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This Old House - Do-it-Yourself

The Difference Between Condominiums and Townhomes

Written by Posted On Thursday, 29 June 2000 00:00

You've heard of condominiums. You've heard of townhomes. But have you ever heard of condominium townhomes? One developer (whose identity and geographic location shall remain nameless) is marketing properties just like that. The problem is, there's really no such thing as a condominium townhome. To combine those two styles of residences is like, well, combining apples and oranges to create a strange new fruit. What's the difference between a condominium and a townhome, anyway? There certainly seems to be a lot of confusion about the distinction between the two, as these developers have demonstrated.

A buyer of a condominium owns his or her individual unit, plus a percentage of the surrounding property, including land and any amenities on the property. (The word "condominium" is Latin, meaning "common ownership" or "common control.") Residents are members of a homeowners' association and pay a monthly fee to the association in exchange for maintenance of the common property. Each condominium complex has a master deed which outlines the percentage of ownership each unit in the development has invested in the entire complex. That percentage determines residents' monthly dues to the association. Condominiums come in a wide variety of architectural styles, from two- and three-story buildings arranged apartment-complex style with carports to luxurious high-rise properties with sweeping views of the surrounding city or natural landscape.

A buyer of a townhome purchases his or her individual unit, as well as the ground underneath that unit. Each townhome has its own roof, in contrast to condominiums. Townhome residents also typically belong to a homeowners' association and pay monthly fees in exchange for the general maintenance of common outdoor areas. Townhomes occasionally come with such single-family home amenities as garages and backyards (albeit small backyards), for which owners generally are responsible for maintaining.

The terms of condominium ownership sometimes are cloudier, simply because owners share more common areas (for example, stairs and hallways) than do townhome owners. The rules enforced by high-rise condo associations are sometimes stiffer, perhaps because residents are living in closer quarters, with many more residents per square foot. Condo owners are responsible for the space inside their own walls, which means they can paint them however they wish. They don't enjoy that same privilege on the outside of their homes, however. "Common areas" are generally defined to include shared hallways, parking lots, any exterior walls and the land on which the condominium development sits, as well as any amenities on premises for the enjoyment of residents.

Condominium associations occasionally receive flak for assuming a dictatorship of sorts, governing what residents can and cannot hang in their windows or place out on their balconies. Unfortunately for the homeowner who just wants to express himself, some areas of the resident's condo which are in view of other residents -- including balconies, patios, carports and sometimes even windows -- are designated "limited common spaces," which means that residents are given general self-governance for those areas of their homes, but with restrictions. In a sense, this desigation is positive because it protects you from having your property used by a neighbor without your consent (for example, someone steals your parking spot, or the neighbor's kids begin using your patio).

The monthly dues residents pay to their homeowners' associations can vary greatly. Take, for example, high-rise condominiums, which often charge several hundred dollars for their association fees. It's important to note, however, that some of these high-rises cover all of their residents' utilities, including electricity, in that monthly fee (depending upon the property, however, your tolerance to heat and cold could be tested if you don't have an autonomous thermostat in your unit). High-rises also typically have a 24-hour desk attendant, which offers a positive (but not infalliable) safety feature. Association fees in low-rise condominiums and townhomes tend to be lower, ranging from $50 to $75 on the lower end to $200 or more on the higher end, depending upon the services offered in exchange for those fees.

Despite the occasional horror stories told about infamous homeowners' associations, residents who have chosen this lifestyle usually enjoy the convenience they receive in exchange for their membership in this mini-government. If properly managed, homeowners' associations can be an excellent insurance policy for the value of your property and that of your neighbors.

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