Condo or town house? What's the difference? What should you buy?
The differences in these popular types of multifamily housing are substantial and important.
Condos and town houses vary in size, cost, ownership and amenities. They appeal to different lifestyles and different age groups.
Just ask Charles "Bud" Mueller and his wife, Josephine "Joey" Mueller. The retirees lived in a Crystal Lake town house for 16 years. Recently they moved to a condo in Palatine.
One of the main reasons for the switch was the stairs in the two-story town house.
"There was a lot of going up and down. Time passes. Now we live in a one-level condo at the Heritage of Palatine," said Mueller.
Built by R. Franczak & Associates, their 1,300-square-foot unit has two bedrooms, a balcony and is within walking distance of downtown Palatine. Prices range from $199,900 to $349,000.
Older buyers appreciate the ease of single-level living in condos. Younger buyers like the space and privacy of a town house.
That includes Marie and Glen Wood. Marie prefers living in a town house rather than a condo. After residing in a condo in Roselle, she and her husband first rented and then bought a town house at Prescott Mill, a Pulte Homes development in Oswego.
"A condo is more like an apartment. Our three-bedroom town house offers more privacy. You don't see the neighbors all the time. Plus, our town house is more spacious and we have a back yard and a cement patio," she said.
"Also, we have higher ceilings than in the condo and there's nobody living above us. Our master bedroom is above the two-car garage. At our condo, we had only one parking space," she added.
Two types of town houses are offered at Prescott Mill. The 1,150-square-foot plan is priced from $169,990, while the 1,521-square-foot plan goes from $189,990.
"Condos, typically, do not have basements, while some town houses do," said Chris Naatz, vice president of sales and marketing for Pulte's Illinois division. "Town houses have garages, but condos may or may not have garage parking.
Jeff Benach, executive vice president of Chicago-based Lexington Homes, said town houses appeal to younger buyers who want a less expensive substitute for single-family homes.
"In the last 20 years, town houses got almost as big as single-family homes, sometimes 4,000 square feet. Now, though, we're seeing a return to basics, with average sizes of 1,500 to 1,800 square feet," Benach said.
He noted that the main demand for town houses is in the suburbs, while Chicago is predominantly a condo market. Benach added that all prices drastically dropped in both the city and suburbs in 2007 to 2008. "Now I think prices have stabilized," he said.
Real estate analyst Tracy Cross said that condos over the years in Chicago have captured 82 percent to 96 percent of multifamily sales.
But the reverse is true in the suburbs, where town houses take about 81 percent of multifamily sales, according to Cross, president of Tracy Cross and Associates in Schaumburg.
Besides the geographical trend, there are many other differences.
"Condominium is an ownership style and town house is a housing style," said real estate analyst Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Associates in Schaumburg.
He added that the popular conception is that condos are single-level residences stacked in high-rise elevator buildings; while town houses are usually two- or three-story buildings with their own private outdoor entry, front and back yards and garage.
"Older buyers like the security and the lock-and-leave convenience of condos. However, not everyone is ready for the rules enforced by condo boards," Hovany said.
In downtown Chicago, the condo is king. That's mainly because of the high cost of land. Developers can build more condos than town houses on the same size lot.
One development with a mix of both condos and town houses is Lakeshore East, a 28-acre Magellan Development Group project rising on a former golf course west of Lake Shore Drive and north of Millennium Park. Magellan offers a row of three-level town houses priced from $1.6 million.
Roby Frankel of Bluestone Development pointed out differences in condo and town-house buyers. "For high-end buyers, condos in downtown Chicago often are second homes. But town houses are almost always a primary residence."
Frankel noted that the current trend is toward smaller condos in downtown Chicago. "In the last five years, to make more money developers are trying to squeeze in more units in a building."
He believes town houses are better for neighborhoods because they are less dense than condos.
Anchor General is another firm building town houses in the city. Developer Steven Frytz, president of Anchor General, noted that first-time buyers often select a town house because they are less expensive than single-family homes. Also, he noted that condo owners often move up to town houses.
"Town houses are more family-oriented. More than 50 percent of town-house buyers have children," Frytz added.
To satisfy that market, his firm is building Cornelia Court, a 63-unit town house development in Chicago's West Roscoe Village neighborhood. Prices for units with 2,242 to 2,904 square feet start at $449,900.
Real estate attorney Mark Pearlstein, who also writes an advice column on condominiums for the Chicago Tribune, said the main concerns of town house owners revolve around who is responsible for maintenance. These include who cuts the grass, who maintains flower beds and who pays for replacing a roof.
Pearlstein added that the rules vary at each housing development.
He explained that residents of a town house own the structure and the land, including the front and back yards. Condo residents own just their unit.
"An ongoing controversy at town houses concerns television satellite dishes and where to put them. On the roof, on balconies, on a side wall? On condos they are usually permitted on balconies," Pearlstein said.
He advises buyers of both town houses and condos to read the purchase documents carefully, especially the designated-use section. "You want to make sure the residence is compatible with your lifestyle, especially in regard to pets and home-based businesses. Also, you want to know your maintenance responsibilities. Some people think the association takes care of everything."
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