What is a single-family home? – Forbes Advisor


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Although buying a home can be an exciting step, it also involves learning the vast number of terms used in the real estate world. One phrase you’ll likely come across is “single family home,” which refers to one of the most popular property types.

If you’re wondering what a single-family home is and if it’s right for you, here’s what you need to know.

What defines a single family home?

A single-family house is a house intended for the habitation of one family at a time. In most cases, this term is used to refer specifically to single-family detached houses, that is, free-standing structures on their own land and not attached to houses owned by other people.

If you buy one of these houses, you will own both the house and the property it sits on. This differs from other types of properties like condominiums where you only own the interior of your individual unit and share co-ownership of common areas with other owners in the complex.

However, the government uses a broader definition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, semi-detached duplexes, quadruplexes, townhouses, and townhouses are also considered single-family structures along with fully detached homes. However, in order to meet this classification, homes must be separated by a floor-to-roof wall with no units above or below them, and they cannot share heating systems or utility meters.

This legal definition may come into play if you are working with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), or Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to finance your home. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also adhere to this definition.

Single-family home or townhouse

Unlike detached houses, townhouses are houses that share at least one or two walls with other units next to them, depending on whether they are end units or not. Although these types of homes contain multiple levels (often two or three stories), they are also typically smaller than single-family detached homes, which can make them a less expensive option.

Townhouses also typically offer amenities that you’ll share with your neighbors, such as access to a swimming pool or clubhouse. In addition, unlike other terraced houses such as condos, you will own the land on which your unit is located.

Keep in mind that townhouses are usually part of a homeowners association (HOA), which will manage services such as lawn care and maintenance. This means that you could share responsibility for the exterior of your home with the HOA. For example, you might be responsible for your windows and deck while the HOA takes care of the siding, roof, and driveway. Note that HOA fees can range from $100 to $1,000 or more.

Single family home or condo

Condos are another type of townhouse that provides access to shared amenities. Like townhouses, condos are usually part of an HOA, which means you won’t be responsible for the exterior or landscaping, but will have to pay an HOA fee.

A condo will likely be smaller than a townhouse or single-family home, which might make it more affordable in comparison. However, you will only own an individual unit within the complex, not the property it is on.

Single-Family Home vs. Multi-Family Home

Multi-family homes are buildings that can accommodate several different families at the same time, such as an apartment or a condo building or even a duplex, triplex or even quadplex. These are popular real estate investments because they can help increase an owner’s cash flow as well as increase their net operating income (a formula used to calculate the profitability of an investment). An owner can also choose to live in one of the units, in which case it is an owner-occupied property.

Living in a multi-family home could also be an option if you prefer to rent instead of buy or if you prefer to have a smaller space without additional responsibilities like maintaining a pool or lawn.

Advantages and disadvantages of buying a single family home

Like any type of property, a single-family home has its pros and cons.

Advantages of buying a single family home

  • More space. If you’re looking to buy land that you won’t have to share with others, a single-family detached home might be the best fit for you. You can also enjoy additional features like having your own garage, yard, pool or garden.
  • More privacy. Although you will always have neighbors in a single-family home, they will be much more spread out than if you lived in a condo, townhouse, or apartment. This could be ideal if you prefer to be left alone.
  • More amenities. Single-family homes often provide access to private amenities and appliances, such as washers and dryers (or hookups to install them), dishwashers, and yard space.

Disadvantages of buying a single family home

  • Higher purchase price. Single-family homes tend to be the more expensive option compared to townhouses and condominiums. This could hurt your chances of buying if you don’t have enough money saved up to buy the house. Even if you make a large down payment, a higher purchase price means larger monthly payments.
  • No more upfront costs. Buying a single-family home usually means getting a mortgage, which can lead to additional expenses like a down payment (depending on the type of loan) and closing costs. You’ll also need to factor in moving costs as well as the costs of updating or replacing appliances before settling in.
  • Additional Liability. More house and space means more individual responsibility. If your house has its own yard, you will have to mow the lawn or hire a company to maintain it. The same applies to interior costs. So if a pipe bursts or your AC stops working, you’ll have to foot the bill to fix it.

Alternatives to Single-Family Homes

If a single-family home isn’t right for you, there are alternatives to consider.

  • Apartment or condominium: The only difference between an apartment and a condo is that individual apartments cannot be rented whereas condos can be purchased in the same way as any house (and then rented out by the owner if desired). Both share walls (and possibly floors or ceilings, in the case of apartments) with neighboring units, but you generally won’t have to worry about maintaining the property.
  • Townhouse : You also have the option of purchasing a townhouse, which will have multiple floors and share one or two walls with other units. Like apartments and condos, townhouses are generally less expensive than single-family homes. But unlike these other options, you will own the property the townhouse is on.
  • Multi-family house: If you are looking to invest in real estate, buying a multi-family home, such as an apartment complex, duplexes, triplexes, or quadplexes, could be an option. While this is likely more expensive than buying a single-family home, you could end up breaking even and then increasing your income by collecting rent from tenants.
  • House made: Formerly known as mobile homes, they are generally smaller and much cheaper than single family homes, but also offer the option of living in a detached space. Keep in mind that with a manufactured home, you will generally be limited to living in a mobile home community, leaving you with fewer choices as to where you want to live.

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