What to know about buying, owning a townhome: Check on fees, layout, noise, parking, stairs

The Cityview townhome development in downtown Des Moines on Keo Way near Interstate 235.
The Cityview townhome development in downtown Des Moines on Keo Way near Interstate 235.

Townhomes are becoming an increasingly popular option for homebuyers, both in the Des Moines metro and nationwide. Here's what you should know about them.

Expect to pay a homeowner association fee

April Seydel, sales manager for large-scale Des Moines townhome developer Hubbell Homes, estimates that “90% of our communities” require residents to pay monthly homeowner association fees. Generally, the fees cover outdoor expenditures, including snow removal, yard maintenance, exterior building maintenance and maintaining shared parking lots.

HOA fees can vary widely but tend to be lower than condominium fees because a townhome association usually isn’t responsible for maintaining garages, lobbies and shared mechanical systems such as plumbing and elevators that often are features of larger, shared buildings.

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Especially in newer developments, the fees can be quite reasonable. At the new Spring Crest Townhomes development in the South Maple Grove area of West Des Moines, for example, they're advertised as $120 a month. Five miles to the east, a 38-year-old, two-bedroom, two-bath townhome at 4807 Cedar Drive requires a $700 monthly fee — almost as much as the projected mortgage payment. A residents-only pool is being renovated.

The fees will be set out in the association’s legal guidelines for homeowners, often referred to as a covenant. The document is available to prospective buyers and provides important information about other possible fees, like assessments to cover repaving driveways, replacing waterlines and maintaining privacy fences when the cost exceeds the resources of the community's reserves.

You will share a wall — or walls

A townhome is an attached dwelling, meaning it will always have at least one common wall shared with its neighbor. Modern developments usually include some soundproofing, but older units may not.

And especially with interior units that have shared walls on both sides, there are likely to be fewer windows than in a freestanding house. Depending on the location, the lack of natural light can make a home appear dark inside.

It's hard to ignore the neighbors

Living in a townhome community means having a shared investment with your neighbors. One way to assess their level of commitment to the property is to ask what percentage of units are rentals.

At the same time, having a community association enforcing standards and taking care of exterior maintenance offers reassurance that neglect inside a unit won't necessarily be reflected in its outward appearance.

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Consider the community's layout

Des Moines Realtor Darla Willett-Rohrssen, a townhome specialist, encourages potential buyers to look at the layout of the development during an initial visit. Herself a townhome owner in The Banks at Bridge District in the East Village, she said “one of the reasons I chose to buy there compared to other spots, it’s just really quiet. There's no through streets.”

Parking is another factor to take into account. Lack of guest parking can hamper owners who like to entertain family and friends and have become accustomed to a generous-sized driveway. The layout of some townhome developments can restrict the amount of street parking close to each property’s front door.

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Seydel promotes the advantage to homebuyers of purchasing a townhome with a two-car attached garage, but says, “That is hard to find in the Des Moines downtown market,” she said.

Are you ready to climb stairs?

There are ranch-style townhomes with single-level layouts. But more common are what Willett-Rohrssen calls vertical designs, with two or three floors. “You have to be OK with stairs,” she said.

Richard Lane is the real estate reporter for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at rlane@registermedia.com.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: What Des Moines townhome shoppers should know about fees, parking