If you’re thinking of buying a semi-detached or attached home, it’s important to understand the difference. A semi-detached, or "semi," is a house, usually two or three stories high, that shares one exterior, or "party," wall with another house. An attached house is a row house of two, three, or more stories, where each of its sidewalls is shared or common with another house (except if it is the house at either end of the row). Attached houses are often called townhouses.
Semis and townhouses should not be confused with linked houses or links, which appear to be detached, but are linked together by foundations or a common basement parking facility.
Semis and townhouses have some advantages. For one thing, they are less expensive to build than detached homes, because they share a foundation and a wall or walls. As a result, when you buy a semi or townhouse, you may get more home for your buck. Typically, a semi or townhouse the same size as a detached house in the same neighborhood will cost somewhat less.
The common wall or walls also make semis and townhouses somewhat less expensive to heat and cool. And you may be able to get reduced rates on home improvement projects such as roof repairs or attic insulation by getting the work done at the same time and by the same contractor as your neighbor(s).
Privacy may be a problem with both semi and attached homes. Noise from neighbors is the number one concern. New semi-detached houses and townhouses should be insulated to reduce sound transmission between party walls, and have rooms arranged so that the rooms or features that are adjacent on opposite sides of common walls are compatible. Stairwells set against common walls provide the greatest privacy. The worst layout would put a bedroom in one house adjacent to a recreation room in the attached home.
A private backyard adds considerably to the value and enjoyment of a semi or townhouse. Good fencing, landscaping and carefully positioned patio doors can make even a small garden a pleasant extension of your home. If you’re house-hunting in summer, sit outside and see if you like the garden and whether it has a private feel. If it is in the middle of winter, try to envision the garden in summer.
While you’re in the backyard, check to make sure fencing is in good repair and that there are no outstanding disputes over overhanging trees, floodlights or other features. If the row house or semi next door has a pool, you’re likely in for a lot of noise in the summer.
In the front of the house, privacy is usually less of a concern. A good design maximizes the distance between the front doors of attached homes. It’s nice not to bump into your neighbors all the time, or to have to listen to them say good night to guests at two a.m. because your living room or bedroom windows are right next to their front door.
Lack of windows and natural light is also a drawback with some semis and townhouses, because there are windows on only two (or perhaps three, in the case of a semi) sides. Skylights, sun tubes, well-placed mirrors and light colored paints that reflect and make the most of what natural light is available can all mitigate this problem. But try to view a semi or townhouse during the day, so you can see how much natural light it gets.
Though sharing jobs can save money, upkeep of semis and townhouses can be problematic if you and your attached neighbors don’t have similar standards or tastes. If you hate your neighbor’s sagging porch or the color of his or her trim, you’ll just have to live with it. And when it comes time for you to sell, the condition and appeal of the attached home(s) may drag down the price you get.
However, semis and attached homes in many new developments are sold with covenants that restrict what owners can do to the facades of their houses and in public areas of the development. There can be even more restrictions when townhouses are sold as condominiums -- this means no one can ruin the look of the street by painting the front door and shutters purple and green. On the other hand, it means you may not be able to do just what you want, either. And you will pay fees for the upkeep of common areas.
REALTORS® say that the location of a home is a more important factor in its investment value than whether it is detached or a semi or townhouse. A townhouse or semi in a great location will appreciate more than a detached home in a run-down neighborhood.
Moreover, townhouse developments are preferred to detached houses by an increasing segment of the aging baby-boomer population who like the reasonable prices and low upkeep. The fact that subdivision developers now tend to build a townhouse component into every project is a sign of the growing popularity of this style of housing.