Townhomes in Chicago are as varied as the neighborhoods in which they reside. They serve as modest homes at affordable prices as well as luxury status symbols at swanky addresses.
History of townhomes in Chicago
Chicago Row Homes – which for the purposes of our discussion are included within the definition of townhomes – have a history that dates back to the late 1890’s in Chicago. Beautiful examples of elegant Chicago row homes can be found on the near south side, in Old Town and in Lincoln Park. Then, as now, the row homes were conceived to offer “a little bit more” for “a little less.” Elegant row homes popped up in small pockets all over Chicago through the 1920’s. Offering nearly the same amount of space as a single-family home in the same neighborhood, the row homes were affordable alternatives to buying a whole house and nicer than renting an apartment.
Popularity of row homes and townhomes took a break for half-a-century in Chicago. Construction of townhomes picked up again in earnest in the 1960’s with “Mid-Century Modern” homes being constructed in desirable locations in slightly off-beat neighborhoods such as Old Town and Lakeview. In the 1960’s, neighborhoods such as Lakeview, and the fill-in neighborhood to the west of the Gold Coast were nowhere near as desirable as they are today. Yet East Lakeview’s location near the waterfront, and the yet-established Old Town proximity to Downtown inspired a few developers to take a chance on building a few townhouses near already established clusters of high-rises.
During the 1970’s, builders began filling in other neighborhoods from the far south to the far north reaches of Chicago with affordable townhomes that offered additional amenities from the standard rental units that were typically found in the same areas. While a typical rental had limited closet space, very small bedrooms and separate galley kitchens, the new modern floor plans offered spacious bedrooms, kitchens with modern appliances and table space, central heating and air conditioning, often a basement for storage – or built out as recreational space – and parking.
Townhomes throughout Chicagoland fall into four easily recognizable categories. We will strive to label townhomes here at www.townhomeshop.com with the same convention.
Value oriented townhomes still offer the great floor plans that you’ll find in the nicer townhomes. The fits and finishes will simply be more basic and the homes themselves will be located in less expensive areas. Some aspects of construction are not as sturdy or solid as townhomes built for sale from the start. Therefore, residents may notice more noise, and higher utility costs in value range townhomes. . Finishes will be basic with laminate countertops, plain appliances, wall to wall carpeting and standard bathroom flooring and tile. Parking will most likely be outdoors in an open parking lot.
There really aren’t that many value range townhomes in Chicago, but are much more prevalent in the Suburbs. Many were rental communities up until recently, and barely warranted mentioning but as many have been converted into condominiums, they are described here.
Standard townhomes are often found on outlying neighborhoods of Chicago that have only recently gained popularity. Examples include Ravenswood, Old Irving Park or Uptown. Standard townhomes also enjoy the benefits of more modern floor plans such as generous room sizes, eat-in kitchens, some basements and off-street parking. These townhomes will probably only have one bathroom for the bedrooms, perhaps an extra half bath on the living-room level as a guest bath, and outdoor rather than garage parking. Finishes will be basic with laminate countertops, plain appliances, wall to wall carpeting and standard bathroom flooring and tile. Lucky shoppers might find some hardwood floors.
Near Luxury townhomes will span the age range discussed earlier throughout Chicago. In the vintage row-homes, differentiation between levels of quality will have much to do with whether the row-home has been renovated recently or not, and whether modern amenities and contemporary finishes have been installed.
More modern examples of Near Luxury townhomes will be located in more desirable neighborhoods. Many would have been considered Luxury quality when new, but with the passage of time may be out-of-fashion. They will certainly afford modern floor plans with spacious rooms and good closet space. The inclusion of a master bedroom with attached bath is more prevalent in Near Luxury townhomes, but not always. It is also more likely that garage parking will be available, but not always.
Luxury townhomes will most frequently be constructed within the last ten years offering very desirable floor plans, gracious square footage and modern fits and finishes. A few may be vintage and those that are will have been renovated quite recently to include appropriate finishes, the additional bathrooms needed in a luxury home as modern utilities such as central heat and air conditioning.
Luxury townhomes are most appropriate in neighborhoods where it’s considered luxurious to live. Though some luxury townhomes can be found in outlying neighborhoods, they are mostly found in premium locales. Often Luxury townhome communities will feature some amenities such as a park, a playground, pool, tennis courts or clubhouse.
These floor plans will nearly always feature an attached garage, a third bedroom or den and multiple bathrooms including a master bedroom-bathroom suite. Décor will be modern with wood floors in appropriate finish and luxurious carpeting where installed. Kitchens in luxury townhomes will nearly always be finished with attractive cabinetry, granite or other luxury material counter-tops and up-to-date appliances.
Ultra Luxury townhomes carry the theme of luxury to the extreme. Of course, these will be located in premium neighborhoods. The floor plans will be even more heavenly than Luxury Townhomes with extra spaces such as Media Rooms, Butler Pantries, extra garage spaces, and indoor/outdoor rooms. Some Ultra Luxury Townhomes have elevators, dumb-waiters and servants quarters. Finishes will be extraordinary. Gourmet kitchens will feature the most luxurious finishes, extra prep-sinks, multiple dishwashers, handcrafted cabinetry of the finest hardwoods, and extremely high-end appliances.
Ultra Luxury townhome communities may also offer some amenities such as a park, a playground, pool, tennis courts or clubhouse.
Attractive to buyers moving in both directions
Today, townhomes are attractive to a variety of residents in Chicago and are a popular choice for buyers. Townhomes offer the benefit of being popular for both “move-up” and “downsizing” buyers. Established townhome communities often have residents from both ends of the spectrum as residents.
Empty nesters can be found down-sizing into townhomes when they find they no longer need the space of their suburban family home. Maintenance free living often appeals to residents making this lifestyle choice. The luxury of handing off maintenance chores, snow shoveling, and landscaping is alluring to downsizing buyers.
Young couples often select a townhome as an affordable alternative to a single family home in the Suburbs. Hip urban dwellers are often not yet ready to make the move out to the sleepy confines of far-flung regions of Chicagoland. Yet young couples who are combining households do find the need for additional space, storage for expanding family belongings, and parking for twice as many cars as when they were single and fancy-free. With the steady improvement in Chicago’s public school system, neighborhoods with solid schools are exploding with families who remain longer and with older children than seen in decades. A popular joke among Realtors is that you can save “a quarter-million per kid” by selecting a townhome within a great school’s boundaries compared to enrolling in one of Chicago’s expensive private schools.
Even in tawny neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, townhome living is a cost effective alternative to a single family house. In neighborhoods where the cost of a luxury house can easily exceed $1.5-million, townhomes exist to bridge the gap between condo living and the high cost of a stand-alone house. Lincoln Park’s newest community – Hartland Park – features some townhomes that boast five bedrooms, five full plus two half baths, and pricing that can crest $1-million.
Efficient floor plans
In every neighborhood – from budget to primo – a townhome is invariably a cost effective alternative to a single family home. In some neighborhoods, the townhomes offer greater living space than the houses that surround them even though the townhomes occupy less space. Efficiency of the floor plan is the key to this benefit.
Examples of this scenario can be found where newer townhomes fill in around vintage houses from the 1920’s and 1930’s. A typical Chicago frame Victorian features around 800 square feet per floor for a total of 1,600 square feet of living space above ground. Some of these homes have bedrooms located off the living room and the dining room. If there are bedrooms on a second floor, those rooms are often under a peaked roofline with limited headroom. They would have had only one bath at the time of construction. A newer bathroom will always add cost to the purchase price of the house. At some point, most basements were also converted to living space providing an additional 600 to 800 square feet. But most modest house basements don’t have full-height ceilings, so the space is not as useful.
Conversely, modern townhomes neighboring these houses often feature spacious rooms and modern layouts sprawling over three of even four floors. In a modern townhouse, a garage is often attached alleviating the need to trudge across a yard to the house during Chicago’s notoriously frigid winters. If a garage is attached, the third bed – or den – is located on the first floor. The main living space in a modern townhome is most often upstairs one level affording some privacy, and generous room sizes. Bedrooms are located one more floor up, and the newest designs often feature an attached master bath to the bedroom along with a convenient hallway bath for the second bed and for guests.
The latest amenity to be added to the townhome genre is a fourth floor family room with walk out deck on the rooftop. Sizes range from modest to spacious, and nearly all offer easy access to outdoor space with roof deck and panoramic views.
Townhomes are typically owned in one of three ways.
In a fee simple townhome, you own the land beneath and the sky above your townhome. There should be a party wall agreement between you and your neighbors that spells out how to care for the part of your townhome that touches your neighbor’s. There will also be an easement allowing access for everyone to use a sidewalk and a parking space. This form of ownership is most closely like owning a house, and carries similar responsibilities. You will care for the inside and the outside of the home, including the windows, the roof and mechanical systems. You will also care for landscaping and you will probably shovel your own snow. It’s likely you won’t have to pay any assessments. If you and your neighbors decide to hire someone to come and shovel the sidewalks or mow the lawn, you might draw up a simple agreement to share these expenses. You will have home owners insurance that covers the structure in addition to the contents and liability.
Fee Simple with Home Owners Association (HOA)
Some townhome communities offer the benefits of Fee Simple ownership, but are formed with an HOA to formalize the sharing of common expenses and to put in place an association to care for the property and any common areas. You’ll probably own your home as if it were a house along with the land it sits on. But there will be an assessment to cover common expenses such as landscaping, water and sewer, trash removal, and perhaps even a manager if the property is large enough. Assessments will be lower in a Fee Simple HOA townhome because you will have your own insurance and the Association won’t take care of the actual structure. You will care for the inside and the outside of the home, including the windows, the roof and mechanical systems.
Condominium ownership differs from Fee Simple ownership in that you will own the unit in which you reside, but the land and other common areas are owned by everyone in the association. An important distinction about condominiums is that the building exterior and the party walls are common property rather than individually owned. In a condominium the Condo Association takes care of the exterior maintenance, the roof, sometimes the windows, in addition to paying for the common utilities like water, sewer, trash, snow removal and landscaping. This is very convenient for the residents as the association takes care of the building and the common systems. But it’s more expensive. The association also pays for insurance on the structure against damage or destruction from fire, or water, or other unforeseen circumstance. The association also carries liability insurance for residents and guests on the common areas.
Some townhomes are built in such a way that one part of a townhome sits on top of another townhome with some overlap. Others feature typical townhome floor plans but have one common garage beneath that resembles an underground garage. In buildings such as these, it’s nearly impossible to set up a fee-simple arrangement because clear lot dimensions and descriptions can’t be determined. These buildings will nearly always be condominium townhomes.