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  • Bradley McCurdy

Buying a Townhome? Ask These Questions!

If you want to buy a house but worry about keeping up with a big yard, you may have thought about buying a townhome. Townhomes, like condos and co-ops, are CIDs, or common interest developments. In a CID, neighbors share more than just a street name – their properties are entwined as well. But unlike the more strictly governed condos and co-ops, the word "townhome" denotes more of an architectural style than anything else.

That architectural style can manifest in a few different ways depending on the region you live in, but the most common physical feature associated with townhomes, also frequently referred to as townhouses or row houses, is that they share a common wall – but not ceilings and floors – with neighboring dwellings. Instead of side yards, townhomes have what is commonly called a "party wall" that runs the length of the house. They also often share a stretch of rooftop with adjacent properties.

Like condos, townhomes are generally owned, not rented. And those owners are typically bound by some basic agreements. For example, if someone owns a unit smack in the middle of a row of townhouses, they can't simply raze the residence and rebuild a smaller, detached house that better strikes their fancy. The owners of the adjacent townhomes have what are known as easement rights. That means that while they don't own their neighbor's half of the party wall, they do have certain rights where it's concerned – and that includes its demolition, which would damage the integrity of their own portion of the wall. The same often goes for stuff like fences and driveways. But unlike condo owners, whose property maintenance is usually covered by association fees, owners of townhomes are obliged to care for the upkeep of the exterior of their homes. So in a way, living in a townhome combines condo living with single dwelling living.

If you're thinking of buying a townhome, you'll need to get a good gauge of the neighborhood, taking a look at everything from crime statistics to tax rates, from schools to accessibility to public transportation, just like you would with any other property. But there are also a few questions specific to townhomes that you should ask before buying one.

1: What's the HOA Like?

Homeowners associations (HOAs) can really change the tempo of a neighborhood. If a townhome community has communal areas, say a park, parking lot or recreation center, those are probably regulated and controlled by the HOA. Front and back lawns, on the other hand, are typically your prerogative and responsibility. Rooftop maintenance may also be your concern. Under the wrong circumstances, they can be serious overhead. Find out before you buy whether that's the case.

And while you might want to paint your townhouse in DayGlo shades, chances are about 120 percent that you'd have a homeowners association rep knocking on your door and telling you to tone it down, pronto, if you did. On the other hand, an HOA will also stop your neighbor from stealing your idea to go neon before you get the chance to.

But then there are the dues. Fees – sometimes hefty fees – might be required to fund holiday bashes (whether or not you plan on attending) and other community wants. Perhaps those common areas need regular maintenance; you'll be pulling out your wallet yet again. Find out if there are any add-on costs to living in your intended townhome, and whether or not they're something you feel like paying for. You've got a mortgage, after all. Can you afford a bunch of other bills on top of that?

In other words, if these sorts of neighborly obligations chafe you, you might want to consider another set of townhouses, or just a neighborhood unconstrained by an HOA. If you like the idea of a little order being imposed and don't mind paying for it, an HOA might be just the thing you're looking for.

2: What's the Privacy Like?

In a townhouse, you'll typically only have neighbors on either side, as opposed to on all sides if you live in a condo. But that doesn't mean you want an amateur heavy metal band practicing in a room adjacent to your own at 2 a.m. – especially if they're absolutely terrible. So you'll want to explore how easily noise travels through the set of townhomes you're considering cuddling up into. The so-called party wall doesn't mean you're interested in joining the party, after all.

You can do a little research – and potential future-neighbor-friendship-building – by asking others in the row how well their townhomes are soundproofed and what the tone of the neighborhood is. Do they hear others' TVs better than they hear their own? Are transportation sounds an issue? Or is noise pollution at a minimum? If you fall into a sleeping state that others would equate to being a plank of wood, you're good; if you're a super light sleeper and your community is a loud one, you'll regret this decision the first day you show up to work and people think the zombie apocalypse has begun.

3: How's the Natural Ambiance?

Even small touches of nature can enhance an urban townhome, and those can come in a couple of forms. End units often have a little more outdoor space, like extra elbow room in the yard or an added porch or patio. But if a townhome you're considering is sandwiched between two others instead of being the slice of bread on either end, then having a little outdoor haven is a great plus. Your yard will, however, probably have to be sparingly luxurious given that townhouses don't tend to have much real estate beyond the building's footprint.

Look for a nice solid fence out back – make sure it's good and sturdy. Ask about any encroaching hedges and overhanging trees: Whose responsibility are they? A nicely landscaped setting is a plus, unless gardening is one of your primary hobbies, in which case an unfinished yard can provide you with plenty of pleasant afternoons over the next couple of years while you beautify it.

Thanks to their shared walls, most townhomes have windows only in the front and back, not on the sides, so overhead skylights are another great way to welcome the natural world into your future home. If the unit doesn't have any, find out if you can install some. Be wary of potential neighbors who have a complete disregard for light pollution, though. In close quarters like these, anyone who likes to crank the watts late at night could do some serious damage to your sleep cycle.

4: What's the Insurance Situation?

In some sets of townhouses, the HOA takes care of a portion of the insurance. In others, you're on your own. So it's important to ask what the policies are and what you'll need to do to insure your stuff should the worst happen. Whether they're covering it or you are, you want to make sure your belongings and your dwelling are protected should something awful occur.

Look into what types of disastrous situations are covered. Is flood damage on the list? How about harm from earthquakes? If the tectonics or the water table in your area are a bit fussy, you'll want to be protected, and those sorts of policies are often above and beyond the standard coverage. It's worth consulting your insurance agency to find out the specifics on your policy and beefing it up if you need to.

5: What's in the CC&R?

Covenants, conditions and restrictions (commonly referred to as CC&Rs) are rules that come along with living in certain communities. If you're looking at a townhome, there's almost certainly one for the property. It's not just the parts of the home that your neighbors can see – a CC&R can specify who can live in your home, whether you have pets, what you're obligated to do if there's a pest infestation, whether you can hang a clothesline outside, and other aspects of your day-to-day life.

While they can limit what you can do with your property, CC&Rs usually have benefits as well. Because of them, condominium complexes and rows of townhouses often look nicer, are safer and maintain higher property values. They can also prevent common neighborhood annoyances. The CC&R can keep your neighbors from blocking your parking space with a dumpster during a months-long construction project, digging a pool that encroaches on your patch of yard or adopting an army of noisy puppies (and then leaving their messes in the landscaping). In other words, pretty much nothing is off the table; it simply depends on the local standards. Read the CC&R documents all the way through before you sign on the dotted line.

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