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The Difference Between Owning a Condominium and a Townhouse

In NYC they seem similar — at first.

The Difference Between Owning a Condominium and a Townhouse

Buyers looking for a spacious home frequently begin their search looking to purchase either a townhouse or a condominium. In NYC they seem similar at first glance because you do not need board approval to purchase yet they are very different in five important ways.

1. Ownership Structure

In a condominium you will own your apartment and all that is included inside the four walls. You will also own a portion of the common elements of the building. This will include a portion of the lobby, hallways, basement and any common outdoor space. The amount you own can be found in the building’s offering plan and it is typically an amount less than 1% in buildings with many units.

This percentage is decided upon by the original sponsor when they submit the offering plan to the Attorney General’s office. The percentage relates to the amount of square feet you own and on what floor the apartment is on the building. Higher floors typically are allotted a greater percentage. This percentage will not change over time unless you purchase an adjacent apartment and combine the two.

When you own a townhouse you not only own the building but the land underneath the home. If you are getting a mortgage the bank will require a survey to be certain the plot of land you are purchasing is free of encroachments. The most common encroachment is a neighbor’s fence which may be built on your property by mistake.

Many Harlem townhouse owners have done extensive renovations over the past twenty years. While building an additional floor or adding outdoor space, the neighbor may have inadvertently built onto your property. In one extreme case in the Mt. Morris Section of Harlem, an owner, was required to dismantle their recent addition.

As a townhouse owner you will share a wall on either side of your building with a neighbor. This wall is referred to as a party wall. Depending on how the buildings were originally constructed there may be one or only two layers of brick between you and a neighbor. In certain townhouses if you remove the sheet rock you may notice what appears to be a bricked-up archway. Over a century ago these homes were built three or more at a time and the archway allowed workers to move freely between the structures while they were under construction.

2. Maintenance and Fees

When you begin your search online you will notice that a condo will list the common charges and the real estate taxes whereas the townhouse only has real estate taxes. At first glance, it looks like the townhouse is less expensive on a monthly basis but that may not be true. When you own a condominium, your monthly fee goes toward the running of the building, including turning on the lights in the hallway, the water bill, garbage removal, any staff the building employs including the all-important superintendent.

You are not responsible to undertake any of the repairs in the building, they are simply done for you. How much you owe in common charges every month is based on your ownership portion of the common elements. The managing agent simply takes the cost of running the building and divvies it up by the percentages to arrive at the monthly common charges.

A townhouse has all the same bills as a condominium such as a water bill, turning on the lights and garbage removal. As the owner it will be up to you to figure out who does your repairs and removes your garbage. If you enjoy being responsible for all of the duties a building superintendent typically performs and you have the time, your out-of-pocket expenses will be far less.

If you don’t there are many options available to you from hiring some local help for regular duties such as taking out the garbage and sweeping your stoop to hiring a full-service company which will take care of everything from daily maintenance to overseeing annual inspections.

3. Rules and Regulations

A condominium will have a list of House Rules and you will be asked to sign off on them before you get to the closing table. Most of these rules are there to make life more harmonious for all the residents. They typically also cover rules that help everyone adhere to building codes.

For example, you cannot leave personal items in the hallway because it is a fire code violation. House Rules will also refer to restrictions in order for the building to comply with insurance requirements and to keep noise down. And of course, major renovations are also subject to rules even in a condominium.

While no one is inclined to weigh in on your design choices, you are required to submit your plans to the building to ensure you are not undertaking a project which could impact the structural integrity of the building.

In a townhouse you are free to customize and design your space as you see fit. However, they are not without rules. As an owner you will be subject to rules regarding how the property may be used as it pertains to zoning, sidewalk and stoop maintenance and potentially landmarks. Yet, how you use the interior is completely up to you. It will be up to you to adhere to all of the safety standards required by insurance and local laws.

4. Amenities

If taking on the role of running the building didn’t turn potential buyers away from townhouse, sometimes the lack of amenities will. If you live in a condominium, you can choose where you live depending on what amenities you want. The available options run the gamut these days with some Upper West Side condos offering pools including one on a rooftop.

Some of the Upper East Side condos for sale offer basketball courts. These are typical amenities for a luxury condominium, whereas a more modest selection of amenities including a doorman, gym and some common outdoor space will keep your monthly costs down.

Townhouses are not normally associated with amenities apart from private outdoor space, a garden, a rooftop terrace. Many homeowners will customize their spaces to include home gyms these days or offer a below grade space which you can use however you wish.

Buyers choose a townhouse for the privacy and the space which includes high ceilings. In Murray Hill there are a number of townhouses with historic facades which have been renovated to include huge glass windows in the rear of the building to let in light and stunning landscaped outdoor spaces.

Luxury townhouses however offer privacy and amenities typically associated with a condominium. These uber luxury homes trading around the $20 million mark may come with a pool and an elevator.

5. Resale Value

For condominiums and townhouse alike the old maxim, “location, location, location” applies. Overall condominiums are easier to resell because there is a larger potential pool of buyers. Whereas townhouses are only about one percent of the overall available housing stock in Manhattan and therefore aren’t necessarily suited for everyone. The sale of a townhouse can easily take up to a year whereas a well-priced, renovated condominium can be sold in half the time.

The choice between the two depends on your preferences, lifestyle, budget, and long-term goals. It’s important to thoroughly research and understand the specific condo or townhouse you’re interested in before making a purchase decision understanding that each condominium and townhouse has their own particular quirks and making generalizations about either type of ownership could lead you to making faulty conclusions.

For the best approach you should always consult a local NYC real estate professional who understands the market.