A townhouse, or town house, as used in North America, Asia, Australia, South Africa and parts of Europe, is a type of medium-density housing in cities, usually but not necessarily terraced (row housing) or semi-detached. A modern town house is often one with a small footprint on multiple floors. The term originally referred in British usage to the city residence of a member of the nobility, as opposed to their country seat.
Historically, a town house was the city residence of a noble or wealthy family, who would own one or more country houses in which they lived for much of the year. From the 18th century, landowners and their servants would move to a townhouse during the social season (when major balls took place).
In the United Kingdom most townhouses were terraced. Only a small minority of them, generally the largest, were detached, but even aristocrats whose country houses had grounds of hundreds or thousands of acres often lived in terraced houses in town. For example the Duke of Norfolk owned Arundel Castle in the country, while his London house, Norfolk House, was a terraced house in St. James's Square over 100 feet (30 metres) wide.
In the United States and Canada, a townhouse has two connotations. The older predates the automobile and denotes a house on a small footprint in a city, but because of its multiple floors (sometimes six or more), it has a large living space, often with servant's quarters. The small footprint of the townhouse allows it to be within walking or mass transit distance of business and industrial areas of the city, yet luxurious enough for wealthy residents of the city.
In areas so densely built that detached single-family houses are uncommon or almost nonexistent, ownership of a townhouse connotes wealth. Some examples of cities where townhouses are occupied almost exclusively by the wealthy are New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.
"Rowhouses" are similar, and consist of several adjacent (next to), uniform units originally found in urban areas on the east coast such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, but now found in lower-cost housing developments in suburbs as well. A rowhouse will generally be smaller and less luxurious than a dwelling called a townhouse.
The name "townhouse" or "townhomes" was later used to describe non-uniform units in suburban areas that are designed to mimic detached or semi-detached homes. Today, the name townhouse is used to describe units mimicking a detached home that are attached in a multi-unit complex. The distinction between dwellings called "apartments" and those called "townhouses" is that townhouses usually consist of multiple floors and have their own outside door as opposed to having only one level and an interior hallway access. They can also be “stacked” and such townhouses have multiple units vertically (typically two), normally each with its own private entrance from the street or at least from the outside. They can be side by side in a row of three or more, in which case they are sometimes referred to as “rowhouses”. A townhouse in a group of two could be referred to as a townhouse but, in Canada and in the United States, it is typically called a semi-detached, and, in some areas of western Canada, a half-duplex.
An example of a non-traditional "townhouse" that is in a complex akin to an apartment complex, is a two bedroom unit with the living room in the front on the lower level, kitchen in the back. Two bedrooms are on the front and back of the upper level with a single bathroom between. This style has become less popular in areas where it has been adopted by 'rent control' or HUD apartments.
In Canada, single-family dwellings, be they any type such as single-family detached homes, apartments, mobile homes or townhouses for example, are split into two categories of ownership:
- condominium (strata title) where one owns the interior of the unit, and also a specified share of the undivided interest of the remainder of the building and land known as common elements.
- Freehold, where one owns exclusively the land and the dwelling without any condominium aspects. In the United States this type of ownership is called fee simple.
Condominium townhouses, just like condominium apartments, are often referred to as "condos", thus referring to the type of ownership rather than to the type of dwelling. Since apartment style condos are the most common, when someone refers to a "condo", many erroneously assume that it must be an apartment style dwelling and conversely that only apartment style dwellings can be condos. All types of dwellings can be condos and this is therefore true of townhouses. A "Brownstone" townhouse is a particular variety found in New York.
Asia, Australia and South Africa
In Asia, Australia and South Africa, the usage of the term follows the North American sense. Townhouses are generally found in complexes. Large complexes often have high security, resort facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, parks and playground equipment. Typically, a townhouse has a Strata Title, i.e. a type of title where the common property (landscaped area, public corridors, building structure etc.) is owned by a corporation of individual owners and the houses on the property are owned by the individual owners.
In population-dense Asian cities dominated by high-rise residential apartment blocks such as Hong Kong, townhouses in private housing developments remain almost exclusively populated by the very wealthy due to the rarity and relatively large sizes of the units. Prominent examples in Hong Kong include Severn 8, in which a 5,067-square-foot (470.7 m2) townhouse sold for HK$285 million (US$37 million) in 2008, or HK$57,000 (US$7,400) per square foot, a record in Asia, and The Beverly Hills, which consists of multiple rows of townhouses with some units as large as 11,000 square feet (1,000 m2).Commonly in the suburbs of major cities an old house on a large block of land is demolished and replaced by a short row of townhouses, built 'end on' to the street for added privacy.
- For a description of an 18th-century town house in England, for example, see Olsen, Kirsten. Daily Life in 18th-Century England. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 84–85.
- Also see Stewart, Rachel. The Town House in Georgian London. Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
- For a history of the town house in the United States, see Herman, Bernard L. Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830. UNC Press Books, 2005.
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- Cunningham, Peter. Handbook of London Past and Present, London, 1850 (see section 20: "Palaces & Chief Houses of the Nobility & Gentry in the Present Day).
- Daisy, Countess of Fingall. Seventy Years Young. First published 1937 (autobiography of an Irish peer's wife, covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth century).