What Is a Single-Family Home? Inside the Dwelling of the American Dream

If you’ve imagined owning a house, chances are you’ve pictured a single-family home, even if you haven’t called it that. A lot of us sketched these types of homes as kids: a square for the building, a rectangle for the door, a triangle roof, and a few windows, and a chimney in front of a bright blue sky.

As a prospective homeowner, you’ll see the term “single-family home” in real estate listings and mortgage applications. For instance, there were 6 million housing units sold in 2019, including new and existing single-family homes, condominiums, and co-ops.

But what sets the single-family home apart? For one thing, it’s…set apart! A single-family home is generally a freestanding structure not attached to — or sharing utilities with — another housing unit, says real estate agent Michele Friedler, a longtime real estate agent serving the Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline areas in Massachusetts.

Whether it’s colonial or modern, one or more stories, with a two-car garage or a backyard swimming pool, a single-family home is a specific type of construction. Yet for many buyers, it symbolizes the American Dream.

Let’s explore more about single-family homes and whether this type of home is right for you.

Single-family homes: The suburban American boom

The popularity of the single-family home dovetails with the growth of suburban America. In the San Fernando Valley before the 1920s, for instance, no running water or electricity meant housing scattered among regional hamlets and large ranches, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Single-family homes in the area — in this case, two-bedroom tract cottages with garages, driveways, and yards for barbecues — began to boom during World War II and the following years as the new Federal Housing Administration encouraged homeownership, the Los Angeles Daily News states.

A single-family home is a type of construction, which in turn ties into zoning laws and land use. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, single-family housing units can be standalone houses or semi-attached, side-by-side structures such as duplexes, townhouses, or row houses. But all must have these characteristics:

  • A ground-to-roof wall
  • A separate heating system
  • Individual meters for public utilities
  • No units located above or below

If each individual unit within a building does not meet all these conditions, the building is considered multifamily housing, the Census Bureau says.

A condominium, by comparison, is a unit in a multifamily building with specific ownership parameters: each resident owns the interior walls of a particular unit and has joint or common ownership of common areas, such as the lobby and elevator, or any amenities, such as a gym.

Known for being spacious (and becoming more so)

Single-family homes can vary in size, although these homes have grown larger over the years. The median size of a new single-family house completed in 2018 was 2,386 square feet, compared to 2,000 square feet in 1998 and 1,595 square feet in 1980, Census data shows.

Zoning laws indicate where you’ll find the single-family houses in your area. Only about 1% of the residential properties in Manhattan are single-family homes, for instance, according to one analysis from ATTOM Data Solutions, a national property data warehouse. Compare that with the other density of single-family housing in these cities from ATTOM’s analysis:

  • 14% in Boston
  • 20% in Brooklyn
  • 29% in Washington, D.C.
  • 37% in Chicago
  • 49% in San Francisco
  • 51% in Miami
  • 57% in Los Angeles
  • 67% in Denver
  • 69% in Seattle
  • 70% in Austin
  • 81% in Portland
An aerial view of single family homes in Portland, Oregon
Source: (trekandshoot / Shutterstock.com)

The pros of single-family homeownership

A single-family home appeals to buyers who want pride of ownership and a certain amount of freedom. “One can be completely deeded separately, where you own the deed and the rights to that property from the sky to the ground below you,” Friedler says.

This “bundle of rights” includes “the right to sell, lease, encumber, use, enjoy, exclude, and devise by will,” according to The Language of Real Estate. In other words, you could buy a single-family home and bequeath it to someone or lease it as investment property.

Other perks of owning a single-family home include:

Privacy

Because the definition of a single-family home states how individual it is in terms of its utilities and the absence of any units above or below, a single-family home is ideal for people who prefer privacy. While you always have a chance of encountering a noisy neighbor, you live with substantially less noise when you don’t have housing directly over or under your own living space (raucous relatives notwithstanding).

Space

A single-family home gives residents more elbow room, indoors and outdoors. Of the 840,000 single-family homes completed in 2018, 45% had four or more bedrooms and 36% had three or more bathrooms, according to new construction data. Compare that with the 345,000 multifamily units completed that year, where just 10% had three or more bedrooms.

A single-family home also has a yard that’s yours alone, even if it’s small. You can install a swimming pool, a swing set, or even a fire pit if your municipality allows, and you won’t have to share it with your neighbors. Builders often include outdoor features as selling points: of the newly built single-family homes completed in 2018, 32% had a patio and a porch.

Freedom for your own tastes

Perhaps the biggest perk of owning your own home is that you can exercise your own taste and style, right down to the doorknobs. “For somebody who wants to be free to do whatever they want in terms of renovations or styles, paint colors, or landscaping, they may choose to be in a single-family home because there’s less restriction,” Friedler says.

Of course, you can’t violate any local codes or zoning requirements. Also, if your single-family home falls under the governance of a homeowners association (HOA) in your neighborhood or housing development, you’ll also have to abide by the HOA’s rules, at least as far as outdoor decor. But homeownership does provide more flexibility in general.

A customized single family home backyard with lanterns and pillows
Source: (united photo studio / Shutterstock.com)

Some drawbacks of the single-family home: Responsibility and accessibility

There are some cons to owning a single-family home, which tend to boil down to all that space. Your home may be your castle, but because it’s yours, you’re on the hook for whatever happens to it.

Maintenance

An HOA takes care of a community’s shared property (like a recreation center swimming pool or golf course). But even within that type of arrangement, homeowners are responsible for the upkeep of their own houses and yards. Depending on where you live, that could include not only mowing the lawn and raking leaves but perhaps shoveling snow on the driveway, front walk, and sidewalk.

As a homeowner, you also need to keep a maintenance budget for repairs to the exterior, such as the roof; systems such as the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning unit; and major appliances, such as a refrigerator or washing machine; plus any emergencies, like a downed tree in the yard.

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If you or a family member has a disability, or if you find stairs tougher to manage as you age, a single-family home may not be right for you unless it’s only one story.

In the Boston area, Friedler says she notices a number of Baby Boomers who want to sell the houses where they raised their families and move to a condominium or smaller housing closer to the city, where they have more amenities and easier access to shopping and activities.

Not as affordable

The median existing price of a single-family home in November 2019 was $274,000, an increase of 5.4% from a year earlier, the National Association of Realtors said. Assuming a 3% down payment and a 28% maximum mortgage-to-income ratio, one analysis shows that median home prices for the fourth quarter of 2019 were unaffordable for the average wage earner (someone earning $1,095 a week) in 71% of nearly 500 counties nationwide.

The most affordable counties for homeownership, according to an analysis from 24/7 Wall St., include:

  • Baltimore City County, Maryland
  • Bibb County, Georgia
  • Clayton County, Georgia
  • Peoria County, Illinois
  • Wayne County, Michigan

The 25 least-affordable counties to buy a house in the United States all fall within four states: New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, this analysis shows.

In general, a housing unit like a condominium is more affordable than a single-family home, Friedler adds, but that can vary based on other factors. “For parts of the area that I service, we have some condominiums that actually cost more than single-family homes, but that’s because of other aspects of the location in terms of convenience to the business district and public transportation,” she says.

In short, a single-family home appeals to buyers who want a certain amount of space, decorating freedom, and a suburban lifestyle, but there might be options out there that you don’t realize your area has. Talk to your real estate agent about the features you want the most and what best fits your price range to find the type of home that suits your dreams.

Header image source: (Scott Webb / Unsplash.com)

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