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Alternatives to Single-Family Homes: Condos, Townhouses, Apartments, and More

Kimberly Rotter
By: Kimberly Rotter

Our Mortgages Expert

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If you're a first-time home buyer, you'll quickly see how easy it is to get overwhelmed by all the options, prices, and jargon. Once you start learning about the real estate process, you'll probably see that a single-family home is what many people envision when they talk about a "house for sale." But it's only one of many housing options.

Indeed, if you're in the market for affordable housing, you've got a heck of a lot more interesting options today than your parents did. Take a look at these alternatives to single-family homes to find out if one fits your lifestyle and budget.

What is a single-family home?

A single-family home is a dwelling on its own parcel of land. Most of the time, these are freestanding structures that do not share walls or an entrance with other property owners. Also, a single-family home typically has only one utility meter.

An attached unit, like a townhouse or duplex, can be classified as a single-family home if it is separated from its neighbor by a ground-to-roof wall and does not share utilities.

What are alternative living spaces to single-family homes?

Maybe the white picket fence isn't your thing. Maybe you're on a budget in a rising market and wondering if you'll ever be able to afford a house. Maybe you're more concerned with your carbon footprint than having a guest room.

Alternatives to single-family homes range from budget conscious to luxury, and each housing option has a personality all its own. Take a look:


A condo is a home that you own on a piece of land where other people also own homes. Condo owners usually share an entrance, walls, and some utilities with one or more other owners

In many cities, condos cost less per square foot than single-family homes, but you'll pay a monthly homeowners association (HOA) fee to help cover shared expenses. Condos often come with desirable amenities that might not be available with a comparable house. For instance, a pool, hot tub, fitness center, clubhouse, or doorman.

Condos are often the preferred choice of homeowners who don't want to be bothered with building and grounds maintenance. In a condo, the HOA is typically responsible for the upkeep of all those amenities, plus shared assets like the roof, the landscaping, and the parking lot.


A townhouse or townhome is sort of a blend between a single-family home and a condo. Townhouses usually cost less per square foot than single-family homes. But they can offer the feeling of more space and privacy than a condo. Townhomes typically have front and back doors on the ground level, and private yards. If you're trying to decide between condo vs. townhouse, keep in mind that a townhouse's extra space may mean more maintenance -- but also more room to enjoy.

Like a condo, you only own the land the townhouse sits on, and you'll probably share at least one wall with another residence that you don't own. You may also be subject to HOA fees.


Co-op is short for co-operative. You can't actually buy or own a co-op apartment. When you go this route, you're actually becoming a shareholder in the corporation that owns the building. You'll get a proprietary lease to your unit.

A co-op can be less expensive than a condo, but you'll still pay a monthly maintenance fee. Also, most co-ops have rules about what modifications residents can make inside their unit. Remodels and upgrades need to be pre-approved by the board of directors. You'll also need the board's approval to sell your shares.

Manufactured home

A manufactured home or mobile home is a movable home built on a permanent chassis. It is delivered complete and costs a fraction of the price of a single-family home. With proper care and maintenance, a manufactured home can last just as long as a constructed home.

If you happen to own a piece of private land, a manufactured home can be a very affordable alternative to new home construction. Manufactured homes can also be installed in communities or parks where each house's plot is rented. In that case, you own the house but not the land. Many such communities offer amenities like a pool, hot tub, or clubhouse.

Modular home

A modular home is built from prefabricated pieces that are assembled on site. Technically, a modular home is a single-family home. But it costs significantly less than comparable new construction. Modular homes must meet the same construction standards as new homes, so they are popular housing alternatives for buyers who want a brand new house.

Tiny home

A tiny home is what you'd think it would be. Everything you need to live is packed into a very small space, generally no more than 400 square feet. Some people have built their own tiny home for less than $10,000. With some luxury and customization, a tiny home can cost up to $150,000. The average price, however, is $30,000- $40,000.

A tiny home can be newly built, or it can be an upcycled space that previously had another use. Container homes -- tiny houses made from recycled shipping containers -- are popping up all over the country.

People love tiny homes for the lifestyle. There's no room for excess in your life when you live in around 400 square feet of space. But it's a popular choice for people who prioritize zero waste, zero debt, low carbon footprint, or a minimalist lifestyle.

Single-family home with ADU

If you want a detached house in a neighborhood where people rake leaves in the fall, but high prices are a factor, consider a single-family home with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that you could rent. The income from having an ADU, or granny flat, on your property could help you afford a bigger mortgage because some types of mortgage loans allow you to use ADU rent to qualify. The best mortgage lenders for first-time home buyers can walk you through your loan options. Keep in mind that the unit would almost certainly have to be legal to rent or the lender might not consider the rental income.

Duplex, triplex, quadplex

A duplex (or triplex or quadplex) is a multi-unit property with one homeowner. Each dwelling has its own distinct postal address. The main difference between a duplex and a condo is that the multi-family home has one owner. An investor who buys a multifamily property is responsible for all the upkeep.

Community land trusts

Community land trusts are a housing option that can bridge the affordability gap for some home buyers. A trust owns the land but sells the homes on the land at a discount. The home buyers get a long-term renewable lease for the land the home sits on. Because the land is deeded to the trust, the home is priced lower than a comparable traditional home. The number of homes in land trusts is small compared to the overall number of privately owned homes. But the affordable housing a land trust offers is a good incentive to find out if there's one near you.

The best home for a first-time home buyer

Single-family properties are no longer the lone ideal to shoot for. Yes, a single-family home can give you a backyard for your kids to play in, but in many markets, it can be unaffordable, especially for a first-time home buyer.

Other housing alternatives offer many benefits. A condo could get you hotel-like amenities and frees you from the responsibility of mowing the lawn. With a multi-unit home, the rental income could cover your entire mortgage or allow you to buy at a higher price point. Before looking for mortgage lenders, consider your budget first. Use a mortgage calculator to figure out how much of a monthly payment you can afford. Then look outside the box for an alternative living space you might not have been aware of.

Still have questions?

Here are some other questions we've answered:


  • A single-family home is usually a detached house on a parcel of land that is not shared with any other property owner. If there is an accessory unit on the property, it shares a utility meter with the primary dwelling. A townhouse is considered a single-family home if it has its own utility meter and is separated from its neighbor by a ground-to-roof wall.

  • It's no secret that a single-family home can be unaffordable in many U.S. markets. Tiny homes and manufactured homes are among the most affordable alternative living spaces for those looking to buy on a budget. Also, a modular home costs significantly less than a comparable new home built the regular way. Condos and co-ops usually cost less per square foot, but impose monthly maintenance fees.

  • Some housing alternatives include the condominium, townhome, co-operative (co-op), manufactured home, modular home, tiny home, single-family home with an accessory dwelling unit, and multi-family home.

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