Monday, October 14, 2013

Homes: Condo vs Townhouse vs Free Lot vs Single-Family Home vs Apartment vs ???

I am glad I am not the only one confused by what people mean by condo, townhouse, single-family home, and apartments. I used to be on the same page as most people on several forums of non-experts.

For the purposes of mortgages, condos, free-lots, and coops are types of ownership. This basically means what you actually own. The common form is the free-lots which are your typical suburban homes where you own the land and building. Condos is where you own the building or part of the building (unit) but not the land. I am less familiar with coop, but the ownership structure is more that you own a share of the entire building (I think). Typically, the latter two (i.e. condos and coops) are typically not single-family homes but in theory they could be.

Townhouse, single-family homes, and apartments are architectural designs of homes. Single-family homes is a building that does not share any part of the building with another building. Townhouse is a building unit that is typically a part of a larger complex of 3 or more other other townhouses. The ones that I have seen typically share walls but they could be stacked (per online references). Apartments are units that typically share walls and are stacked where each unit also share the same hall and other building facilities.

The most confusing terms are probably townhouses, condos, and apartments. The confusion seems to be that they are typically confused with common standards. For example, townhouses were typically known to be free-lots where you own the land and the unit. But it is possible to just own the unit, but share the land. In this case, this is more known as townhouse style condo.

Apartment units where there is a single owner are also condos. An apartment tenant could be living in an apartment and/or condo. Whether it is a condo or the entire complex is owned by a single owner, the tenant lives in an apartment. If the unit owner only owns that unit in the complex, then the tenant lives in an apartment that is also a condo.

If a tenant says that they live in an apartment, this means that the tenant lives in a unit that shares walls and highly like also ceilings and floors of other units. But you do not know if they are paying to the same person as their neighbors. If a tenant says that they live in a condo, this means that they pay a person that is unlikely the same person that their neighbor also pays. But you do not know what style of building that the tenant lives in. But given probability, apartments are typically a part of a larger complex that is owned by a single person or entity, and condos are typically apartment-style.

In other words, if you own an apartment unit, you are a condo owner of an apartment unit. If you have a tenant that lives in that unit, the tenant can say that they live in an apartment and/or a condo. In theory, you can even have a single-family home condo. This means that you own the building but not the land.

You can have Home Owner Association (HOA) for any type of homes. HOA covers any shared areas or properties. HOA are less likely in established single-family home developments. Gated communities will typically have HOA or HOA-like groups. A development that is still under construction is also likely to have an HOA-like group to establish certain mandates that helps the builders sell the homes.

Typically, HOA for townhouses and apartments is to cover the costs of shared properties or areas. For townhouses these are common lawns and building exteriors. Apartments also include elevators, hallways, lobbies, front-desk if there is one, etc.

So most importantly to understand, there are two different classifications: type of ownership and architectural designs. Some of the terms are commonly interchanged which causes a lot of confusion to people who do not really have to deal with it on any regular basis.

Please feel free to correct or clarify. This is my current understanding on this matter.

Reference

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NR1MTmc-hw
- Video on Townhouse vs Condos

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125199127870183559
- This also has similar definitions

Revisions

2/27/2014 - Added references