Homes can be defined by building type or architectural style.
Houses are defined by the type of building, like a single-family home or a condo
Types of houses can also be further defined by architectural style, like colonial or ranch
Newly constructed homes may combine elements of different architectural styles
Mansions are not a type of home, but a descriptor for very large homes
When you’re looking for a home, your real estate agent might ask you what kind of house you want. Maybe you already have your dream house in mind: a large brick colonial or a quaint Queen Anne. Maybe you don’t know what these types of houses are and just want the traditional style. But what does that mean?
The truth is, there are many different types of houses, which can be defined in two ways. The first way is based on the type of building — like if the home stands alone on its own piece of land or if it’s part of a larger building with more residents. The second way to choose a type of house is based on architectural style — like if it’s a bungalow or carriage house, or even a log cabin or treehouse.
You’ll have to understand both types when you’re buying a house. We’ll go through examples of different types of houses, categorized by both building and architectural styles.
Houses can first be classified based on how the building houses people, like if there are multiple families and residents in the building or just one family.
Single-family homes are what you think of as your regular old house. These are homes that are detached, or aren’t wall-to-wall with the neighboring building. There’s usually a front yard, back yard, and a garage somewhere on the property, all of which you would own.
A single-family home is named as such because it’s meant for one family or group of people who want to reside in the dwelling together. Single-family homes may be part of a residential community.
Multifamily homes, on the other hand, are meant to house more than one family or a group of people. Apartment buildings are one example of a multifamily building, but a house that’s divided into two or more separate dwellings would also qualify. For example, if the basement level of a house was properly outfitted into its own dwelling with a separate entrance, the building would be a multifamily house.
An apartment is a housing unit that shares a common wall with a neighboring unit within a large building. The owner of the apartment building rents each unit out to separate tenants.
Townhouses are like single-family homes in training. You own the home and the land it sits on, though the amount of land is usually limited — townhouses are built very close together and are often connected to each other. They are narrow and have multiple floors, and may be part of a townhouse community.
A condo is typically a unit in a large building, but it may be a smaller multilevel level home attached to others. Although condos may resemble apartments or houses, this type of housing is defined by ownership. The defining characteristic of a condo is that when you buy one, you only own the airspace within the walls of your dwelling, but everything else is jointly owned with other condo owners. Condos typically come with many shared amenities and common spaces. You must also pay fees to the condo owners association.
Learn more about condos and townhouses.
While co-ops resemble apartments or condos, the people who live in co-ops don’t technically own their homes — they own a share of the corporation or cooperative that owns the building and all the homes in it. Run by a board, co-op buildings are well-maintained but have strict rules set by the co-op board, which might not always square with residents who want more autonomy.
When most people think about what type of home they want, they’re usually daydreaming about the architectural style of the house. How the floor plan is laid out, the shape of the roof, the color of the door, what type of material is used, the chimneys, the porch, and everything else.
We’ll go through some of the most common styles of houses, but keep in mind that there’s usually even more variance within the styles, substyles if you will. In the U.S. especially, many newly constructed homes combine elements of different architectural styles.
Mansions typically combine different architectural styles and are not a type of house. They are terms used to describe the size of a house, usually a single-family home.
How many square feet a house must have to qualify as a mansion is up for debate. Houses with more than 5,000 square feet usually qualify as a mansion. Numbers aside, if it feels palatial and has two pools, then you can probably call it a mansion.
The term “McMansion” describes a mansion typically built with little consideration toward aesthetics and design. McMansions are constructed of cheap materials and have a hacked-together appearance. They may also be smaller than the traditional mansion, usually measuring in at 3,000 to 5,000 square feet.
On the other end of the spectrum are tiny homes, which are extremely low in square footage and meant only to house the bare minimum.
One of the more popular styles of contemporary houses, a colonial-style home usually has two or three stories and an attic and basement. The floor plan includes a central staircase that leads up to the bedrooms, while the living room, dining room, and kitchen are on the first floor.
On the outside, the colonial is a simple and symmetrical rectangle with a row of windows on either side of the door. The roof is steep and sits over the gables (the triangular part of the wall underneath the roof) on both sides of the house. The exterior materials of a colonial-style house change based on region.
A ranch-style home is a single-story house with an open horizontal floor plan — though doors are often installed to divide the space. There is usually another door that leads directly to the backyard.
Victorian is an architectural style referring to homes that have features of those from the Victorian era. A popular example of a Victorian-era home in the U.S. would be a Queen Anne-style home, which has an asymmetrical facade, featuring prominent front-facing gables, large overhanging eaves, and wraparound porches.
This type of home is most common in the warmer weather states and resembles a villa. Based on Spanish and Italian architecture, Mediterranean-style homes have light-colored stucco exteriors, brightly tiled roofs, and courtyards or verandas.
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Elissa is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She writes about estate planning, mortgages, and occasionally health insurance. In the past she has written about film and music.
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