Brownstone VS Townhouse
Brownstone VS Townhouse: Your Complete Guide

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Ever strolled through the streets of New York City, or perhaps Boston or Philly, and marveled at those gorgeous, multi-storied urban houses, showcasing hues of brown or red? Well, you’ve likely laid eyes on what we call “brownstones” or “townhouses,” two distinct terms in the realm of urban architecture that sometimes cause quite a bit of confusion, and boy, do they deserve the spotlight! So, let’s dive into the fascinating universe of these structures that are, essentially, much more than just bricks and mortar.


Now, brownstones and townhouses, they’re not twins, but more like siblings. They share a family resemblance, but there are some key differences that make each unique in their own right. 


In this article, we’re going to embark on an architectural journey to dissect the two, explore their origins, delve into their distinct characteristics, and shine a light on what it means to live in each of these urban dwellings.

Brownstone VS Townhouse: Key Differences

Brownstones and townhouses are both multi-story urban homes, but their main differences lie in their construction material and design.

A brownstone is named for its facade made from brown sandstone, often associated with historic neighborhoods in cities like New York, and usually feature Italianate details and stone stoops. 


On the other hand, a townhouse, which can be detached or semi-detached, refers to a style of housing that shares at least one wall with another house and originated as city residences for the wealthy in Europe.


It’s important to note that while all brownstones can be considered townhouses, not all townhouses are brownstones.

DefinitionBuildings made of brown sandstone.Multi-story urban houses, attached or detached.
Historical OriginsOriginated in the 19th century in NYC for middle-class families.Originated in Europe as city residences for noble or wealthy families.
Architectural FeaturesBrownish-red sandstone facades, Italianate details, stone stoops.Varies widely, typically multi-story and often share walls with other houses.
StructureBrick interiors, sandstone exterior.Structure varies based on design and materials used.
LocationMost common in NYC, also found in Philly, Boston.Common globally, especially in urban areas.
Living ExperienceClassic decor, potential outdoor space, proximity to landlord.Varies widely, potentially more modern amenities, diverse architectural styles.
Maintenance & Renovation CostsHigher due to the age of the buildings and the need for specialized care of the sandstone.Varies widely, but typically lower than brownstones unless the townhouse is of historic significance or uses unique materials.
Price RangeHigh demand and scarcity can lead to higher prices, ranging from $3 million to $10 million in NYC.Price can vary widely based on location, design, and size.

Brownstones Vs Townhouses Key Similarities

Ironically, the most striking similarity between brownstones and townhouses is that, in the broadest terms, a brownstone is a type of townhouse


Brownstones and townhouses share a common architectural layout: multi-storied, narrow buildings often designed in rows, sharing at least one wall with neighboring structures.


They’re both born out of urban planning that prioritizes density, and often provide a similar residential experience with some outdoor space, be it a small yard or a stoop.

Understanding Brownstones

If you’re thinking that a brownstone is just another house that is, well, brown, brace yourself for a delightful surprise. Yes, their brownish or reddish tint, courtesy of the sandstone facade, does give them their moniker, but that’s not all there is to them.


A brownstone is, in fact, a type of townhouse, but not all townhouses can pull off the title of a brownstone. Only those donning the brown sandstone exterior are the true blue brownstones of the urban jungle.

The Architectural Renaissance of Brownstones

If you’ve marveled at the elegance of brownstones and wondered about their resurgence, you’re not alone. After all, these architectural beauties, which once teetered on the brink of obsolescence, are now among the most coveted real estate assets.


But what triggered this renaissance?


The story of brownstones’ revival is as intriguing as their birth. As we ushered in the 20th century, the popularity of brownstones began to wane. The material’s susceptibility to weathering and cracking, once seen as a testament to architectural skill, became a significant drawback.


As a result, brownstones were gradually replaced by structures made from more durable materials, such as limestone and brick.


By the mid-20th century, many brownstones had fallen into disrepair. These once grand houses were divided into apartments, their ornate interiors stripped and altered beyond recognition. For a while, it seemed like the era of brownstones was all but over.


But, as is often the case with real estate trends, the wheel eventually turned.


The latter half of the 20th century saw a growing appreciation for historic architecture and a desire to preserve our urban heritage. A wave of restoration swept across cities like New York and Boston, as investors and homeowners began to see the potential in these aging beauties. Brownstones, with their historic charm and timeless appeal, became hot property.


Renovators went to great lengths to restore these structures to their former glory, meticulously preserving their unique facades while modernizing the interiors. The result was a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern convenience – a combination that proved irresistible to many.


Today, brownstones have regained their status as a symbol of urban sophistication. They are a testament to the resilience of architectural styles and a beacon of inspiration for modern design trends.


Their historic charm, coupled with the comfort of modern amenities, make them an ideal choice for discerning homeowners.

This renovated, six-story NYC brownstone is on the market for $15 million and it’s just proof of what we’ve been discussing so far. 

@kristenrylander A home I could live in and truly love my whole life. This was a dream. @BrownHarrisStevens #nyctownhouse #nycbrownstone #upperwestsideliving ♬ Fall Sounds - Lofee

So if investing in real estate has ever crossed your mind, consider a brownstone. Not only will you own a piece of architectural history, but you’ll also have a solid investment.

Locating and Researching Brownstones

The charm of brownstones is hard to resist, with their captivating history, distinctive architecture, and timeless appeal. But where can you find these gems, and how can you delve into their rich heritage?


Brownstones are predominantly found in the Northeastern United States, with New York City and Boston being two of the most famous brownstone hubs.


In New York City, neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and Harlem boast an impressive collection of these architectural marvels.


In Boston, the Back Bay and South End are renowned for their picturesque brownstone-lined streets.


Outside of these two cities, you can also find brownstones in Philadelphia, especially in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, and in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. More broadly, any city in the Northeast with a history dating back to the 19th century may be home to these buildings.


As you embark on your journey to discover and research brownstones, here are a few resources that can guide you:

Historical Society and Local Libraries
They are treasure troves of information. Most cities have historical societies that preserve and provide access to historical documents, photos, and maps. Local libraries may also have unique collections or archives.


Online Real Estate Platforms 
Websites like StreetEasy, Zillow, and Trulia can help you locate brownstones that are currently for sale or rent. These listings often include information about the home’s history and architectural details.


There are several books dedicated to the history of brownstones. Some of them include:

  • “Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House” by Charles Lockwood
  • “The Houses of Greenwich Village” by Kevin D. Murphy and Paul Rocheleau
  • “Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb” by Clay Lancaster
  • “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs
  • “Brownstone: The Identity of a City” by Cleota Reed
  • “The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895” by Lewis Mumford


Guided Tours
Many cities offer guided architectural tours that focus on historic homes. These tours can be a great way to learn about the history and features of brownstones in a particular area.


City Records
Many cities maintain property records that can be accessed online or in person. These records can provide valuable information about the construction and renovation history of a specific brownstone.


Local Experts
Architects, real estate agents, or history professors in your area can be valuable sources of information. Their expertise can provide unique insights into the architectural style, historical significance, and market value of brownstones.

Pros and Cons of Living in a Brownstone

Living in a brownstone offers an irresistible blend of classic decor, potential outdoor space, and the unique experience of being part of a vibrant, close-knit community. 


However, it’s not all roses.


These older buildings often come with higher maintenance costs, the quirks of an aged structure, and sometimes, those narrow stairways can be a real workout.



Current Trends and Market Prices for Brownstones

Brownstones, due to their historical charm and grandeur, are often high on the real estate demand chart.


In NYC, their prices can range from a whopping $3 million to $10 million, reflecting their scarcity and desirability. 


Despite the costs and maintenance challenges, many are now seeing a trend towards restoring these structures to their original single-family status, further enhancing their appeal.

Understanding Townhouses

A townhouse is, simply put, a home sandwiched in a row of similar properties, sharing at least one wall with its neighbors. These homes have multiple stories (often two to three), and each unit is individually owned, unlike apartments in a high-rise. 


They’re like that perfect mix of a freestanding home and a condominium, offering the space of the former with the community vibe of the latter.

Historical Origins of Townhouses

Historically, townhouses were the city residences of the European aristocracy.


They first became popular in London and Paris during the 17th and 18th centuries and then made their way across the pond to the U.S. during the 19th century. They were originally designed as city homes for the wealthy who wanted to be near the hub of urban life.

Architectural and Design Characteristics of Townhouses

A typical townhouse showcases a narrow, tall design to maximize space in urban settings. While they may appear uniform from the outside, the insides can be customized to the owner’s taste. 


Most have small backyards or patios and often include a basement and attic for extra storage. Despite their shared walls, many modern townhouses are built with enhanced soundproofing to maintain that feeling of privacy.

Different Types of Townhouses

Townhouses come in different shapes, from rowhouses to semi-detached units. Rowhouses, a common sight in urban cities, are typically identical and share side walls, standing in a straight line like soldiers on duty. 


Semi-detached townhouses, on the other hand, are like conjoined twins, sharing just one side wall but having the other exposed to the great outdoors.

Pros and Cons of Living in a Townhouse

Key characteristics of a townhouse

Living in a townhouse means enjoying the benefits of community living, shared maintenance costs, and access to shared amenities like pools or gyms.


However, the flip side is less privacy, potential noise from neighbors, and often, less square footage than standalone homes.


And let’s not forget those homeowner’s association (HOA) fees, which, while beneficial for keeping the neighborhood in shipshape, might feel like a dent in your pocket.

How to Determine Whether a House is a Brownstone or a Townhouse

In determining whether a house is a brownstone or a townhouse, consider the building materials and time period. If the house is faced with brown sandstone and hails from the 19th century, it’s likely a brownstone. 


However, if it’s a multi-storied, single-family unit sharing at least one wall with neighboring structures, and its facade doesn’t feature the telltale brown sandstone, it’s probably a townhouse.

Final thoughts

Brownstones and townhouses, despite their shared roots and architectural similarities, offer distinct living experiences.


While they both provide multi-story residential spaces that maximize urban land use, the historical charm and distinctive facade of brownstones contrast sharply with the varied materials and designs of townhouses, which can range from classic to contemporary.


The decision between a brownstone and a townhouse ultimately comes down to personal preference and the desired living experience.


Regardless of the choice made, both brownstones and townhouses have cemented their place in the architectural landscape, offering unique perspectives of city living that blend private residential space with urban density.


They are, in many ways, the architectural embodiments of the cities they inhabit, embodying both the historical narratives and the ever-evolving nature of urban design.

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