There are two property types in Washington Metro that get more attention than any other—rowhouses and townhouses. The latter category is also sometimes referred to as town homes. What’s the reason for all the attention and what are the differences?
Washington DC rowhouses came into being during the early 1800’s were the predominate house typology at the time, with long rectangular lots platted specifically to promote contiguously fronted buildings. In other words, buildings there were constructed in a row, without space between them. Because there were so many rowhouses built over more than a century, the supply has dominated the market.
As for townhouses—these share a commonality with rowhouses in that they are most often units within a structure that has a rowhouse appearance. These are not technically single-unit buildings that touch side to side, but single units within one larger structure. The real difference however, is from bottom-to-top rather than side-to-side. A townhouse residence is multi-storied, while a rowhouse can have separate units by floor.
In other words, in a four-story townhouse building, each separate unit will include four all four levels.
Rowhouses, however, were initially constructed as multifamily dwellings with separate entryways—there might be one or more ground units for instance, with two-story units above. Today, a rowhouse can serve as a single unit, or be split into multiple residences.
The real estate market is largely defined by supply-and-demand and nowhere is that more true than in the Washington DC metropolitan area. The death of Martin Luther King led to five days of sustained rioting in 1968, resulting in scores of burned properties. In the aftermath, residents moved to the suburbs in droves, and DC itself, went through a period of sustained blight and decline.
A decade later, a resurgence began. It was slow, at first, but continued to build throughout the 1980’s, 90’s, and beyond. Rowhouses played a major part—these historic properties had been built during the nation’s infancy as an economical means to house the workforce. Now, many of them were gutted, abandoned, or simply available on the cheap. The abundant supply played directly into demand as new generations moved back into DC, taking advantage of a rebounding economy, jobs creation, and charming brownstone rowhouses that could be restored and renovated.
As the economy improved, so did the demand for larger living spaces. For developers, townhouse construction is a cost-efficient way to build separate multistory homes on the same lot. In recent years, a new subset of the townhouse market has emerged—the luxury townhome. These upscale residences can have up to four stories, with private garages, rec rooms, large open living spaces, several bedrooms and a roof deck.
So to sum up—rowhouses are commonly the older side-by-side structures with more than one unit per building, while townhouses offer multistory bottom-to-top living.