I live in an apartment. And that works for a lot of people – limited maintenance, the flexibility to move more easily, the lower carbon footprint, the often greater access to urban amenities and transit – all good things. But I don’t want to live in an apartment long term. I want to own my own place, and not have to worry so much about noisy neighbors. So am I looking for a single-family home in the suburbs? If you’ve ever read this blog at all, you know that’s not the case.
I want a townhouse. For me, it seems to be the best of both worlds. It provides for owner-occupied housing without the associations and fees of condos. It eliminates upstairs and downstairs neighbors altogether, and thicker walls better insulate from sounds next door. Yet it is still an urban form of housing which takes up less space than a suburban single-family home, and requires less maintenance (because, let’s be honest, I never want to mow a lawn again in my life if I can avoid it, that’s what the Parks Department is for).
In Census terms, a townhouse is an attached single-family home (in that it is owner occupied, but immediately adjacent to other units), and in much of the US, anything that meets that definition is called a townhouse. But I lived in Philadelphia for four years, and as a city full of single-family attached homes, the residents there make distinctions within that definition. Here are some of the types of single-family attached units.
The True Townhouse
Townhouses in Gdansk, Poland. From Wikipedia.
True townhouses are built individually, one by one, and are distinct from the other townhouses on the street. They have “sandwich walls,” meaning that the adjacent buildings don’t share a wall between them, but have separate walls built right next to each other, which provides for excellent sound insulation. As many of these are essentially custom built, they have historically been associated with the upper classes. The “Brownstones” of various cities on the East Coast are part of this group.
Rowhouses in Leeds, UK. From Wikipedia.
Rowhouses (terraced houses for the British types), on the other hand, are usually mass-produced and have similar, if not identical, appearances. They have “shared” or “party walls” between them and often share the same roof line, unless they are in a particularly hilly area. Because they were mass-produced, they are more often associated with the middle- and lower-classes, and with industrial cities where housing was needed for their swelling populations.
The Twin House
Twin houses in Philadelphia. From weknowphilly.com.
As far as I can tell, the name “twin house” is sort of a Philadelphia thing. In other places they might be called duplexes or semi-detached houses. A twin house is basically a set of just two rowhouses with a gap on either side. This allows for a little more space and privacy while still preserving the density of the houses listed above. The floorplans of the houses are usually mirror images of each other, and they may have similar exterior features, although in Philadelphia it is fairly common for neighboring twin homes to use distinct trim colors or small architectural accents. Twins (or semis, as they are more likely to be called there) are the most common dwelling type in England.
For me, all of these dwelling types are great. They are owner-occupied and have enough space for a family while still being low-maintenance and urban. However, if you look on Zillow or other real estate websites for townhouses, you’re also going to get a lot of junk, like:
Patio homes have shared walls, so you can hear the noise of your neighbors. They are set in extensive grounds that are often maintained by a home owners or condo association. They are often located in suburban or exurban communities. Therefore, they have all the disadvantages of rowhouses, condos, and single-family homes, all in one inconvenient bundle.
Two Suburban Houses Stuck Together
Is there really any advantage to this housing type? At least with the patio home (which often has some overlap with this one), they’re usually in a pleasant, albeit remote, location, and you have someone else doing your maintenance, even though you have to relinquish some decision making power to the association. But where I’ve seen these has mostly been in bland, undesirable suburbs, and you have to do your own yardwork. Are they really so affordable that there is any benefit to them over just going all the way for a suburban house?
Attached Garages with Houses Hiding Behind Them
I feel like I’ve seen more of this housing type in the west, and particularly on military bases. It sort of assumes that streets are for cars and no one is ever going to walk to this place, so why even pretend that a front door is something someone would need to see from the street. All the problems of density without the advantages of urbanity.
Add to that the fact that some real estate agents seem to think that “townhouse” just means “small house” and you have a lot to weed through when looking for a townhouse. I should know, because I weeded through all of it.
I went on Zillow and searched for my dream house (townhouse, three bedrooms, two baths, under $300,000, with a Walk Score over 70) in every state. Here’s what that looks like:
There are various reasons why a state would have a low score. Some just aren’t very walkable (Texas, Maine). Some aren’t very affordable (California, Massachusetts). Others just don’t have a lot of townhouses. But what I found really interesting was that there is a corridor, running roughly from Trenton, through Philadelphia and Wilmington and to Baltimore, where there were just tons of affordable, walkable townhouses.
These cities are walkable because they are old, traditional cities that were built at the scale of the pedestrian; and they are affordable partially because they have a large supply of housing, and because the demand isn’t as high as some neighboring markets like in Washington and New York. My question was, why is the supply so high here, and not even in nearby places like Pittsburgh?
That question largely comes down to history. The Trenton-Baltimore corridor was one of the earliest parts of the country to industrialize. Like the cities in the north of England, their housing was built quickly to serve an enormous influx of new residents coming from the countryside or other countries for jobs, which is why both of these areas have a lot of rowhouses. Pittsburgh, although it is known as a major industrial center, developed just a little bit later, after the rowhouse had gone out of style as it was associated with tenements and poor working conditions. While Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses, Pittsburgh is a city of small, narrow, vertically-oriented single family homes. It’s like you took Philadelphia, put a couple of feet between each rowhouse, threw in some crazy topography, and that’s how you make Pittsburgh. Even though they are technically not townhouses, the homes of Pittsburgh are similarly urban, efficient, and low-maintenance.
Pittsburgh. From post-gazette.com.
So, could I live in a single-family home? I guess, as long as it functions like a townhouse. As long as it’s in a neighborhood where I can walk to services, where I’m not bound by a condo association, and where I don’t have to mow a lawn because there’s a decent park nearby, it works for me.