When you’re searching for a place to live, it’s important to understand your options. After all, you want to make the best decision you can. “When helping clients find a place to live, I stick to two main questions,” Jackson Zeitlin, real estate broker at Zeitlin Sotheby’s International Realty, says. “First, what lifestyle do you want your home to provide for you? Second, what is your timeline for living in this home—and what is going to change in that timeline?”
Meet the Expert
The problem? Even after you’ve clarified your wants and needs, there’s a bunch of jargon to sift through. In your search for a place to live, you’ll find single-family homes, multi-family homes, condos, co-ops, and more. And if you don’t understand the differences between them, it’s easy to get lost.
So to help you figure out what kind of house is right for you, we turned to the pros. We asked Zeitlin to walk us through the different kinds of homes—and the pros and cons of each option.
When you’re looking for a place to live, you’ll see a lot of single-family homes. These can be detached homes (freestanding houses) or semi-detached homes (one-half of a duplex).
“A single-family home is determined by two things,” Zeitlin says. “One is zoning, and the other is the kind of occupancy allowed on that property.” Single-family homes sit on their own land. (Even if you live in a duplex, you own the land your unit sits on— plus the part of the yard that belongs to you.) And they’re typically occupied by a single family.
“If you want a bit of comfort, perhaps some privacy, and more room to grow, a single-family home may be a good fit,” Zeitlin says.
A multi-family home is a home with multiple units within it. These units usually have their own entrances, kitchens, and bathrooms—making it easy for a different family to live in each one.
Multi-families include duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes. But according to Zeitlin, anything bigger than four units is typically considered commercial.
When you own a multi-family building, you own all the units inside it. And you can rent those units to different tenants. This makes multi-families great for people who want to invest in a rental property— without owning an entire apartment building or condo complex.
A condo building is a building made up of more than four residential units. And each of those units is called a condominium. This makes condos a lot like apartments, but there’s one major difference: “Condos you own,” Zeitlin says. “Apartments you rent.”
When you buy a condo, you own your unit—and get access to all the shared amenities in your complex. These can include pools, fitness centers, and more. And because these amenities are shared, condos charge a monthly HOA (Homeowners Association) fee that covers repair and upkeep.
Condos are often built in high-density areas, like city centers. So they’re great for people who like to walk around. “If you don't mind sacrificing a bit of space for the convenience of urban living, odds are that a condo is going to call to you,” Zeitlin says.
Co-ops are a lot like condos. They contain more than four units. They offer building-wide amenities. And when you buy a co-op, you get access to both your unit and those shared amenities.
The difference? Co-ops and condos have very different ownership structures. “When you buy a condo, you own what is inside the walls of your unit,” Zeitlin says. “With a co-op, you own a share in the property.” Co-ops are often overseen by corporations. And when you buy a co-op, you’re actually buying a share in that corporation. With that share, you get a lease to one unit in the co-op building. But you don’t actually own that unit.
Zeitlin acknowledges that all this co-op stuff gets “a little tricky.” And since co-ops don’t exist everywhere, you might not have to worry about these technicalities.
But if you live somewhere with co-ops, you’ll likely notice that they’re budget-friendlier than condos. This is a huge perk. Just remember that your investment might appreciate differently than it would if you owned your unit.
Townhomes are pretty easy to spot. They usually boast multiple floors, share walls with other houses, and have ground-level entrances.
Townhomes can be single-family homes or multi-family homes. And they can also be units in a condo complex. So when you’re identifying a townhome, you’re paying more attention to the physical structure than you are to the ownership structure.
Like condos and co-ops, townhomes are often built in urban centers. So they’re great for people who’d pick walkability over space or privacy.
Like condos and co-ops, apartments are units within bigger residential buildings. And some apartment complexes give you access to shared amenities, like laundry rooms, gyms, and even pools. But unlike the other options on our list, apartments are the kind of thing you rent—not buy.
Naturally, there are pros and cons to each option. “The pro of owning is you’re not paying somebody else’s rent,” Zeitlin says. “The con, obviously, is that owning requires more money upfront— you have to make a down payment.”
And renting isn’t just a budget-friendlier option. “It also gives you more flexibility,” Zeitlin says. Since leases often last between 12–24 months, apartments are great if you don’t want to live somewhere for more than a few years.
So if you need to save money and want the freedom to move around, renting an apartment might be ideal.
“In reality, all home types can be for all kinds of people,” Zeitlin says. “It’s a lifestyle choice at the end of the day.”