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Differences between Apartments and Town Houses


Apartments and townhouses are both incredibly popular types of residences in modern Australia;  in part due to increasing urbanization and swelling inner city land prices. But what exactly is the difference between the two building types?


Let's take a look.

Similar Buildings but Very Different Histories

Did you know cities as far back as the Roman Empire featured high rise apartment blocks? Roman builders constructed communal dwellings known as insulae that towered up to eight stories high. Much like modern apartment blocks, insula were built in an effort to contain urban sprawl and to house large numbers of people in a small area. These early apartments were not designed for the wealthy, but rather for the urban poor.


More modern incarnations of the apartment block sprung up across Europe and America in the 18th and 19th century. Many of these apartments were also constructed to house the urban poor and were often cramped, squalid, poorly designed and infested with rats. While nowadays apartment living is not associated with poverty (note the $140 million sale in 2019 of a penthouse apartment in Sydney) the apartment certainly started out as a humble and affordable residence for the urban poor.


Town houses in contrast have always been more closely associated with the wealthy. Their very name 'town house' implies that the owners also held property elsewhere, with the main house (complete with extensive, rambling gardens) often being in the country. Townhouses were simply a place to stay for the nobility to stay during the social season. Their existence dates back to around the 17th century, with the first version of the townhouse originating in Paris at the behest of King Henri IV.


Style and Features

In keeping with their different histories, town houses and apartments possess distinctive styles and features. While, as we noted above, apartments are no longer associated so strongly with poverty, a typical apartment still tends to:

  • Have a smaller square footage than a townhouse
  • Have only one level
  • Have shared parking spaces or undercover parking
  • Lack direct access to the street

In contrast a townhouse, while generally possessing smaller square footage than a stand-alone house, will have more space than an apartment. It will most likely also feature a courtyard or small back yard plus a private garage. Townhouses also tend to have direct access to the street rather than shared stairwells/lifts/corridors and they tend to be built up two or more storeys.


Of course the main style difference between these two types of buildings stems in large part from their relationship to the residences around them. Town houses tend to (but don't always) share a wall with the neighbouring property, but in most other ways functions as a standalone house. In contrast apartments are part of a larger building and often share multiple walls plus floors and ceilings.


Ownership - How Much Sharing is Involved?

Given we've discussed the shared nature of apartments and townhouses above, it can be no surprise then that when you own either property type you will most likely have shared responsibilities beyond your four walls. The difference between townhouses and apartments is the degree of sharing involved.


If you purchase a townhouse or apartment in Australia you'll probably possess a strata title meaning you own the actual lot or unit but you have shared ownership of common areas. For townhouses the shared spaces are likely to be restricted to roads/driveways and gardens. For apartments shared spaces can be far more extensive. Either way you'll need to comply with a body corp.; however if you own an apartment it's likely the body corp. will have much greater influence over what you can and can't do than if you own a townhouse.


We hope this article has given you a new understanding of the main differences between two of Australia's most popular property types.