Years ago, a New York City family was looking to change how they lived. For years, they’d enjoyed living in a full-service high-rise building in Manhattan with doormen, a live-in superintendent and many of the other conveniences and amenities that come with apartment living.
After years of living closely among neighbors, making small talk in the elevator, and attending co-op shareholder meetings, they found themselves toying with the idea of moving to a brownstone. The wife, a psychologist, had just begrudgingly agreed to let her neighbor redecorate their shared elevator landing, and the husband, a successful attorney, had always fantasized about more space and a backyard.
When it came time to make a change, they'd decided that the next chapter of their lives would be in a classic New York City townhouse. But earlier this year, after less than a decade of shoveling snow, running up and down staircases to get from the kitchen to their bedroom, pulling weeds and a flooded basement, they started considering a move back into a full-service condominium.
In many American cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles, financially mobile residents might have the choice of living in an apartment (sometimes referred to as a flat or condominium, depending on the city) or a freestanding house. High-rise buildings vary in size and quality, and some houses, like row houses in Philadelphia or San Francisco, may share walls with neighbors.
But in any city or town, there are advantages and disadvantages to living in a private house versus living among neighbors in a larger building.
Here are a few questions to ask if you find yourself with the choice between a single-family house and apartment:
- Are you handy or resourceful?
- How much space do you need?
- How much privacy do you need?
Are You Handy or Resourceful?
Before buying a fixer-upper or starting a renovation, any prospective homeowner should determine whether they are even capable of taking on a project. If someone doesn't already have the know-how, do they have the ability to learn or hire the right people?
Mechanical and structural issues arise in any property over time, and these need to be handled. If you own a freestanding house, these problems are yours and yours alone. Most people don’t know how to replace a roof or repave a driveway themselves and will, therefore, hire contractors or engineers. This can get pricey, of course, but these decisions can be made swiftly, without the bureaucracy of a condo association.
In condo or co-op buildings, if an expensive problem arises that affects the entire building, like a roof repair, these costs are generally shared among the residents. Furthermore, there is often staff on hand to manage and repair structural or mechanical problems, and thus the residents often never even know these issues arise.
Be honest about your ability to address mechanical and structural issues yourself, and whether you have the confidence to hire the right expert to do the work. If not, you might be more comfortable in an apartment building that has a resident manager with expertise in handling these kinds of problems.
How Much Space Do You Need?
Another family looking to move had been living in a 3,000-square-foot apartment in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City, with large rooms and tons of closet space. Even so, they had collected enough belongings to overflow in the space and make it feel cramped.
This family had obviously outgrown the space and was planning to move to a 6,000-square-foot house in the suburbs. Maybe they could have made this apartment work if they Marie Kondo'd a bit, but taking living costs into consideration, this family would never get that kind of space in a New York City apartment, so moving to a house made sense.
The building they were leaving is a full-service luxury low-rise with staff and amenities, and the lofts sell for millions of dollars. The monthly costs to live there reflect the building services and amenities and residents have a gym, garage, furnished roof deck, 24-hour valet that can sign for deliveries and on-site handymen to fix anything that needs repairing.
But as anyone could see, space was an extremely high priority for these people, and thus a house made more sense. And with working from home becoming more the norm, the extra space needed for a designated home office is more valuable than ever.
How Much Privacy Do You Need?
With neighbors above, below, and on either side of you, you might hear them now and then. And they might hear you too – moving furniture, practicing for the catwalk or yelling at Fido to stop barking. Raised voices carry.
For highly social people, making friends in the building might be a real bonus, but others can’t help but stare at the floor and turn up the volume on their earphones when sharing the elevator.
In a building with staff, while convenience and security come with having doormen, porters, valets and handymen on the premises, there is surely some privacy that is lost with this as well. Of course, a freestanding house affords residents valuable privacy.
The family who had moved to the townhouse originally noted how wonderful it was to not have to say “good morning” to the doorman every day. But that was before their basement flooded, they saw their first mouse run across the floor of the laundry room and the boiler needed to be replaced.
With a nod to current events and the ongoing pandemic, there has been some flight from big cities in favor of more secluded houses. There is no doubt that a free-standing house will afford more isolation and distance from other people than a high-rise could ever offer.
Suburban markets have seen their short-term rental prices soar, and many young families who had been considering leaving the city for a house in the suburbs used the first attempts at reopening in the pandemic as the moment to do so. In high-rises, walking through the lobby or touching the button in an elevator seemed like the equivalent of navigating a battlefield. And the luxury of having one’s own home gym versus dealing with gym closures in apartment buildings was an incalculable bonus.
For the family that moved from a high-rise to a townhouse and back to a condominium, privacy was not necessarily a concern, and the allure of a house wore off. They loved having a small backyard but remarked that the upkeep was nonstop. Instead of having building staff to shovel the sidewalk in the winter, the responsibility became theirs. Suddenly saying hello to neighbors in the elevator didn’t seem so unpleasant, especially after their basement flooded during a particularly violent storm. And with all those Amazon and Fresh Direct deliveries securely received, life in a full-service high rise building looked greener than the grass had initially looked in that private house.
See which home style meets your needs.
When it comes to residential architecture, style and layout are influenced not only by prevailing artistic tastes of the period, but also by the way people live in and use their homes. In the Victorian era of calling cards and rigorously orchestrated entertaining, small reception rooms that flowed to and from formal dining rooms were ideal. Bungalows built before World War II typically have front porches, while post-war ranches and midcentury modern homes offer more private socializing and outdoor spaces. Even if you love the look of a particular architectural style, it won't necessarily suit your lifestyle and day-to-day needs. Here are seven of the most popular home styles you see in the U.S. today, as well as their pros and cons for contemporary residents.Historic brownstones and row houses
Historic brownstones and row houses
While brownstones and historic row houses are a quintessential New York City housing type, they can be found throughout the country, particularly in cities founded before 1900. Their shared walls made them easy to build on small urban lots, while their multistory layouts accommodated large families and gracious reception rooms. Row houses typically feature living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens on the parlor floor, beds and baths above and occasionally an English basement apartment or added living space on the garden level. These historic homes are coveted for their architectural detail, square footage and outdoor space, but they do have their drawbacks. Their shared walls restrict windows to the front and back facades, often leaving interiors with minimal natural light. Narrow buildings can mean smaller rooms, especially bedrooms. And while backyards are standard, you will have close neighbors on both sides.Modern and midcentury modern homes
Modern and midcentury modern homes
First introduced in the 1920s by renowned architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, American midcentury modern architecture is known for its minimalism, clean lines and openness. Modern home design closely embodies the idea that form follows function, and postwar innovations in construction led to the abundant use of new materials, including glass, steel and concrete, in place of traditional brick and wood. These houses earn high marks for their walls of windows and fantastic natural light, and open floor plans offer plenty of space to stretch out and entertain. On the downside, that abundant glass brings with it a certain lack of privacy, and those modern building materials can often leave interiors feeling stark and cold. Many modern homes look their best when sparsely furnished and ultra-tidy, so collectors and families with small children may struggle with keeping their midcentury modern looking magazine-ready.American bungalows
There's quite a bit of variation in so-called "bungalow architecture" in the U.S., with examples ranging from small, shingled Queen Anne homes to stucco Spanish Colonial styles with red-tile roofs. Common traits within the genre are single or one-and-a-half-story profiles and layouts that strive to maximize space within modest proportions. Grand entrances and space-stealing hallways are absent, and front doors open directly into living spaces. Built primarily between 1900 and 1930, these houses offered homeownership at an affordable price. And while those benefits ring true today, even the most charming bungalow can suffer from cramped living spaces, low ceilings and small lot sizes. These homes were constructed economically nearly a century ago, so you should expect to dole out money for modernization and upkeep or be careful in choosing a bungalow that's already been thoroughly updated.Ranch homes
Popularized after World War II, ranch-style homes, often called ramblers, feature boxy, single-level layouts built on a concrete slab with low-pitched roofs and wide overhangs. They are particularly common in the West and Southwest, but can be found across the U.S. Single-story accessibility is a major selling point for ranch homes, especially for those with limited mobility or for families with young kids. Their flat, square layouts provide spacious and sunny living spaces typically with sliding glass doors that open to a rear yard, but with only one floor, you'll find less separation between entertaining and sleeping quarters. However, ranches can seem bland compared to other architectural styles. They lack basement storage, and their low-slung roofs make them less than ideal in locales where the temperature dips below freezing.Center-hall Colonials
Originally inspired by its Georgian and Palladian predecessors in Europe, American Colonial architecture can be traced back to our nation's earliest settlements, especially in Virginia and Maryland. Today, colonial revival is a leading architectural style among both new and historic homes featuring a uniquely American combination of gabled roofs, dormers, columned entryways and center-hall layouts. In this configuration, you arrive in a central hallway flanked by formal living and dining rooms. Kitchens and family rooms are placed in the rear of the main floor with beds and baths above. Rooms are typically bright and spacious. On the other hand, those who gravitate toward open floor plans may find colonial home entertaining spaces overly compartmentalized.Victorians
Popular for most of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, Victorian architecture in the U.S. was heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Facades include machine-cut and tooled ornamentation and flourishes, asymmetrical layouts and steep gable or mansard roofs that are decorated with dormer windows. Today, the colorful Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies in San Francisco often come to mind, but houses of this era can be found across the U.S. in a combination of many styles and influences. Victorian homes are not for the faint of heart when it comes to maintenance and upkeep. Unless you acquire a thoroughly modernized Victorian, you can expect to put some money and effort into updating systems. Ornate woodwork and fixtures require skilled tradespeople for restoration and replacement, and these homes can be drafty if windows, insulation and walls aren't upgraded.High-rises
Not so much an architectural style as a housing type, high-rise apartments and condo buildings are the epitome of contemporary city living. Glass curtain walls deliver impeccable views, and modern construction means that systems like electrical and central air conditioning are top-notch. Within the latest luxury high-rises, residents enjoy desirable amenities, including fitness centers, roof decks, lounges, parking garages, storage and laundry facilities. However, there are downsides to living in a high-rise. Depending on the location of your apartment or condo, you could have multiple neighbors sharing walls, ceilings and floors, which makes noise and privacy a concern. Waiting for elevators is the norm with skyscraper living, and imagine walking down (and possibly back up) multiple flights of stairs if elevators need repairing. Private outdoor space is limited, and you'll pay a premium when it is available.Architectural styles to consider for your next home include:
Architectural styles to consider for your next home include:
- Brownstones and row houses.
- Modern and midcentury modern homes.
- American bungalows.
- Ranch homes.
- Center-hall colonials.
- High rises.