You’re looking for your first home but you’re stuck. Should you get a house? Condo? Apartment? In fact, what’s the difference between a condo and an apartment, anyway? It’s important to know the different types of property you could be looking at before you go in, as well as the type of property you want. Living in a house and living in a condo can be dramatically different, not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of cost and real estate arrangements.

Let’s take a deeper look into the differences between houses, condos, and apartments.

First: What’s the difference between a condo or an apartment?

When you talk about buying, you’re really talking about buying a house or a condo.

A condo is what an apartment is called when it is owned. An apartment is what a condo is called when it’s rented. So, if you’re a tenant, you live in an apartment; if you’re an owner, you live in a condo.

This distinction isn’t that important. If you say you’re looking for an apartment, most real estate agents are going to know what you mean. On the other side of the coin, though, if they say “condo,” they mean the same as an apartment.

How to Buy a House vs. Buying a Condo

Are there differences in buying a house vs. buying a condo? Quite a few, actually.

When you buy a house, you’re buying the land and the property on it. With some rare exceptions, you’re responsible for all the maintenance and repairs on the property. You also have the freedom to do whatever you want on the property (within the confines of zoning laws, regulations, and legality). You will purchase the house in a fee simple sale, which means that you’re going to own the property after the mortgage loan is completed. Until then, you still own the property, but the lender has a lien on the property.

Your monthly housing payment for a house is going to be your mortgage, mortgage interest, insurance payments, and any property taxes. You might also have HOA fees but these are usually optional. They can vary. Some HOA fees are $10 a month and others are $100 or even more if you’re in a luxury, gated community.

With condos, you’re buying the land and the property that is contained within your four walls. You’re actually purchasing a part of the air. You also have usage of common areas, but this can be controlled and restricted by the condo building. You don’t have the freedom to do anything you want. Notably, your balcony area is usually controlled by the condo association. While HOA fees are optional, nearly every condo has AOAO fees; Association of Apartment Owner costs. These can be substantial because they need to pay for the upkeep of the building. So, when you buy a condo, your payments are much more than just your mortgage. You also have these AOAO fees to pay.

If something happens such as damage to your condo’s parking lot, there will be a special assessment; when you buy the condo, you agree to this. Additionally, there are multiple ways to buy a condo. You can buy a condo as a fee simple property (you own it outright) but you can also buy a leasehold; you own it for a certain amount of time. This is usually lengthy, like 50 years. But the reason people do this is because the building itself may not last hundreds of years. They don’t want to permanently buy “land” that might not exist in the future.

Now, in terms of qualifying for a loan, there aren’t many differences. Either way, you’ll get a mortgage loan, you’ll need a good credit score, you’ll need solid income, or you might need a co-signer. The mechanics of closing on a loan and completing your purchase are also almost identical. But the core difference between a house and a condo is going to be the options you have and the amount of money you’re paying besides the actual loan itself.

The Pros and Cons of a House vs. a Condo

When you buy a house you have a lot of freedom. You have a yard, you have a bigger property, you have complete control over your house inside and out, and you don’t have proximity to your neighbors. You’re likely in a more suburban and less city-center area, you likely have spent less in association fees (and therefore more in your house itself), but you’re going to need to maintain your property. With a house, you can get some things you can’t with a condo, such as a personal pool. But you have responsibilities such as the foundation and roof, which you simply aren’t going to get with a condo. You have more privacy but you have access to far fewer amenities.

With a condo, it’s the inverse. You don’t have as much control over your living situation or your property but you have a lot of material conveniences. You may have things like a pool, gym, or even a restaurant on site. You may be able to go to a spa or a shared dog park. You will not need to take care of a yard, but you will need to make sure your balcony is clean. You may be sharing walls with other tenants or other owners, you may experience noise pollution or other irritants, but you also don’t need to deal with things like managing your water and electrical lines. Often, even things like the internet might be included.

In many ways, owning a condo can be “easier” than purchasing a house because there just isn’t as much maintenance or decision-making involved. But by the same token, there’s a lot less freedom.

For quite a few people, it’s going to come down to what’s available in your area. If you’re living in the city, you’re going to be very hard-pressed to find a house there. You might have to choose a condo if you’re in a big city. But if you’re interested in suburban life, it’s a house for you.

Town Homes and Duplexes

Condos and houses aren’t the only options. There are also townhomes and duplexes.

A townhome or duplex is very like a condo married to a house. Often, they do have yards and other amenities. They can be in developments where there are pools or gyms. But they’re bigger than condos and often two-story or even three-story. They are attached so you don’t own the entire property, but you own the ground floor of the property so you aren’t purchasing something that’s just hovering in space.

Townhomes are a great consideration for those who are somewhat between houses and condos and aren’t sure what they want. They give the best of both worlds to people who are undecided and they make excellent first homes. You aren’t fully responsible for everything; often, there’s a yard service that will take care of things like mowing the lawn. But at the same time, you can use your yard for pets and you don’t have to worry about constantly walking a dog or worry about not having a place for children to play.

The major downsides to townhomes and duplexes are that you are attached to your neighbors and that you usually don’t have a lot of space. But they are also usually more current and modern than homes because they’ve been more recently constructed.

If you want a condo life with a house feel, a townhome could be the best option.

There are also split houses. These are houses that have been split into duplexes where there are multiple living areas. This is perfect for a cross-generational property.

Either way, the mortgage loans and process of purchasing these homes are going to be largely identical. You can consult with your real estate agent regarding what the best choice is for you and whether you can afford either. If you are priced out of the market for a home, it’s going to be a townhome or a condo for the most part. But if you have a place where condos are very expensive, having a house on the outskirts might be better.

How can you decide whether a house or a condo is right for you?

Ultimately, the choice is up to you. It depends on how you want to live.

If you want a yard and aren’t afraid of home maintenance, a house might be a wise choice. If you want a lot of pets, if you like being independent, and if you need a lot of space, a house is going to be better. If you want to live in the suburbs, a house is better. But if you hate home maintenance, hate yards, and want to keep a minimalist home sparkling clean, a condo can be better. If you like to live in the city, a condo might be the only choice.

Houses and condos have drastically different lifestyles. It’s not always about cost. In some areas, condos are more expensive (such as in the big city). In other areas, condos are much cheaper (such as small townships). Consider what you want from your house or condo, what lifestyle you want to live, what budget you have, and where you want to be. Altogether, this is going to give you a much better picture of what you want.

And, of course, townhomes and duplexes are other solutions. You might want to tell your agent that you’re considering multiple options so they can show you different types of property. Many agents have multiple types of property available depending on what you’re looking for and you could be surprised at what you get. A ground-floor condo, for instance, could be just as good as a house, or a small house might be easier to maintain than you think. A townhome could give you the best of both worlds, or you might find that it has all the irritants of being in a condo and none of the advantages of a home. It’s all up to you and how you live because housing is very intensely personal and a big decision.

You can consult with a real estate agent about what there is in the area. Keep in mind that you don’t always get your “perfect home” the first home you buy. Quite often, you get a home and then “move up” to your dream home or your forever home. Often, it’s better to get in the market early than continue saving for your dream home; it lets you take advantage of the skyrocketing real estate prices while you wait.