It’s a Townhouse. It’s a Villa. It’s a Condo?  It’s a . . . . . . . I’m Not Sure!



I am a St. Louis-based Realtor and was recently hired by a couple who were looking to buy their first new home in several years. They were looking for low-maintenance living (there is no such thing as “Maintenance-Free Living”).

As we went through the discovery process we determined: where they wanted to live: how big a home they wanted; how many bedrooms and bathrooms; the limits of their budget; whether they want an existing home or a new construction home; etc.

They did their homework and had all of the answers. They knew what they wanted.

They said they had been driving around and found a townhouse they were interested in. However, knowing they wanted everything on one level I asked if they were sure they wanted a townhouse or villa?

They said they wanted a townhouse. So I checked it out and it looked like a villa to me.


Was it a townhouse? Was it a villa? Was it a condo? Who was right and who was wrong?


It depends.

It depends on who’s asking, and who’s answering.

Let’s start with an attempt to define each of these various housing types...




According to Wikipedia, “Historically, a townhouse 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.

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 servants' 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.

Today, the term, townhouse, is used to describe units mimicking a detached home that is attached in a multi-unit complex. The distinction between living units 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/or having access via an interior hallway or via an exterior balcony-style walkway (more common in the warmer climates). Another distinction is that in most areas of the US outside of the very largest cities, apartment refers to rental housing, and townhouse typically refers to an individually owned dwelling, although the term townhouse-style (rental) apartment is also heard.

Townhouses can also be "stacked.” Such homes 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 row houses. A townhouse in a group of two could be referred to as a townhouse, but in Canada and the US, it is typically called a semi-detached home and in some areas of western Canada, a half-duplex.


According to, “Townhomes Include the Structure of the Building. Townhomes are characterized by the occupant owning the outside structure and the inside unit. A townhome may have similar features to a freestanding home, such as a garage, but usually has at least one shared wall with a neighbor. Townhome owners are ordinarily responsible for the upkeep of the grounds that come with the property. Some but not all townhomes may also have housing associations similar to condos, and have common areas such as a pool or workout facilities that are shared by the community.“ describes townhome ownership as: “A townhome owner owns the unit interior and the land on which the townhome -- also called a townhouse -- sits. A townhome differs from a house in that a townhome is not free-standing. Several townhomes are connected to each other. Insurance is generally more expensive for a townhome owner because the owner is responsible for the exterior areas of the unit and any patio area that is included in the owner’s title. The owner is also liable for any accidents inside or out on that owner's part of the property. The townhome association would insure the public areas, including parking lots, public buildings, sidewalks, and any recreational facilities. Townhome owners commonly pay association dues. The owner is also responsible for maintaining all exterior area of the unit, including the lawn, siding, and roof.”


So what is a row house?


wiseGeek indicates “Row houses are a category of urban homes that are located in one area and are consistent, one with the other, in architecture, design, and appearance.” In other words, they are townhomes that all look the same.

Many references note that townhouses, as well as row houses, are found in older East Coast urban cities. That may, or may not, be true, but that is a common conception. As many know, the City of St. Louis has hundreds of examples of townhouses and row houses, historic as well as newer construction.

OK, that’s simple enough. Now let’s look at the definition of a “Villa.”




A villa was originally an upper-class country house dating back to Roman times. However, in Las Vegas, it's a very expensive suite that is usually more than one story and has multiple bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Neither applies to what the mainstream considers a villa. 

Sarah McWilliams of considers the term “villa” as a vacation property, and this is correct is many areas, not only in the United States but in other countries describes a villa as “a large, detached structure with spacious land surrounding it. It is very luxurious and may include amenities such as a pool, stables, and gardens. A villa is generally home to a single family, in contrast to condos and townhomes that are designed to house multiple families. Villas are found in less populated areas while condos and townhomes are in more densely populated areas. A villa has the same maintenance and insurance requirements as a house or a townhouse. What sets a villa apart is its rich amenities and seclusion. Rather than living in a villa, the owner may decide to rent out the villa as a vacation destination.” explains “A villa can be very similar to a house in that it can closely resemble a standard, single family home, but villas are also known for being luxurious, larger homes with their own gardens, vineyards or courtyards, hotel-like services, and water fixtures, like pools and fountains. Because of this, villas are known as more private, elegant destinations for people who want to go on vacation, but prefer to not stay in a hotel, where the atmosphere can be impersonal.”


It is obvious the rest of the world has a different view of what a villa is than we do in St. Louis.


According to “Villa is used more to describe a lifestyle or a feeling a neighborhood has, versus the actual type of construction or ownership. For example, a villa, while it is often attached housing, such as a town-home or duplex, it can also be a detached home. The ownership of the villa could be "fee-simple" or it could a condominium. Many villa communities include some exterior maintenance in the association fee to provide a more care-free lifestyle for the owner.”

In St. Louis a “Villa” can look like a single-family home or an attached home. Most “villas are built in twos, sharing a common wall. But there are examples of villas being in triplexes and even fourplexes. Villas are typically part of a homeowners association and owners pay fees that cover: maintaining public facilities such as common areas, pools, and community centers; as well as services such as snow removal, landscape maintenance, building exterior maintenance, trash service, etc.

Built “in twos.” Sounds like a duplex to me. Similar, but historically, a duplex has one owner. Often the owner would live in one half and rent out the other half. A duplex could be two units side-by-side or stacked. Or, is that a two-family flat?

Let’s skip to condominiums.


Condominium (Condo)


From Wikipedia, “A condominium, often shortened to a condo, in the United States, and in most Canadian provinces, is a type of living space which is similar to an apartment but which is independently sellable and therefore regarded as real estate. It is where the condominium building structure is divided into several units that are each separately owned, surrounded by common areas that are jointly owned. notes “a condo owner only has title to the condo interior and does not own the land on which the condo sits. Insurance is generally less expensive for a condo owner than for the owner of a house because the condo owner is only responsible for damage or accidents that may happen inside the condo unit. Buildings, land, exterior areas, and all public areas are insured by the condo association. The condo association also maintains the exterior areas, including lawns, siding, and roofs. Condo associations tend to place heavy restrictions on owners for what is visible from the outside of the condo, including what can be displayed in windows or hung from balconies. Expenses paid by the condo association are funded by the condo owners via association dues.” explains “A condominium is a form of ownership of a unit. A condo is one unit in a larger building where you own your unit and typically pay a condo association fee to pay for the communal areas. Examples include hallways, parking lots, workout facilities and pool areas. While you do not own the common areas, you contribute to the maintenance through your condo association fees, and have full access to them. You can’t make any changes to the communal areas. Since you own the actual unit, however, you are free to paint and renovate as you wish inside the walls.”


Wikipedia states, “Technically, a condominium is a collection of individual home units and common areas along with the land upon which they sit. Individual home ownership within a condominium is construed as ownership of only the air space confining the boundaries of the home. The boundaries of that space are specified by a legal document known as a Declaration, filed on record with the local governing authority. Typically, these boundaries will include the wall surrounding a condo, allowing the homeowner to make some interior modifications without impacting the common area. Anything outside this boundary is held in an undivided ownership interest by a corporation established at the time of the condominium's creation. The corporation holds this property in trust on behalf of the homeowners as a group—it may not have ownership itself.


Condominiums have conditions, covenants, and restrictions, and often have additional rules that govern how the individual unit owners are to share the space.


It is also possible for a condominium to consist of single-family dwellings, attached villas, townhouses, or row houses. There are also "detached condominiums" where homeowners do not maintain the exteriors of the dwellings, yards, etc. and "site condominiums" where the owner has more control and possibly ownership (as in a "whole lot" or "lot line" condominium) over the exterior appearance. These structures are preferred by some planned neighborhoods and gated communities.”

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.


Now you understand . . . . or do you?


Since I am a St. Louis-based Realtor, I am speaking to a St. Louis audience, but some of what has been discussed, may, or may not, be applicable where you live.


Base on my conversations with Jeff Bosch, Director of Broker Engagement for MARIS (Mid-America Regional Information Systems), I realized there are no consistent housing definitions across the entire country. There are many regional variances. An MLS (Multiple Listing Service) is a member contribution database, so there is the reality that many things are up to the practitioner to interpret. This affects both input and search. Sometimes there are “marketing spins” for a property and then there are those homes that just don’t fit anyone’s definition. I realize from being involved in new construction that there have been plenty of recent projects that blur the lines between townhome and row home. Row homes are supposed to be identical and townhomes are typically multi-level in a development that has common ground, but…


Regarding the MLS:


·       MARIS is Platinum Certified through RESO (Real Estate Standards Organization). This is a not-for-profit trade organization, formerly part of NAR, tasked with streamlining the real estate technology business. They create and adopt standards that most of the MLS industry strives to comply with. These standards are constantly being elevated. While this has been a huge help in “normalizing” listing information across the country, there still is much open for interpretation. For instance, there are standard fields that are “open”, meaning there is no standard definition for what is contained within the field itself.


According to the local MLS:


·       Villa – could be a “condo” or a PUD depending on if you “own the dirt”.

·       Property style is just a further definition of property type, and could possibly apply to more than one property type. For instance, a villa (style) could be a ranch, 1.5 story, etc.

·       Condo – In our search criteria if you scroll to the bottom of the page you can find additional fields for “building type” and “unit location”. These might help further refine a search on building type.


So now you know!

Are your clients looking for a townhouse, villa, or condo? You and your client may need to have additional discussions to determine exactly what type of housing choice they are looking for.

Don’t assume you know. 

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