We’re always getting questions here at The Washington Post Real Estate section about the Washington area housing market, and sometimes, we don’t have the answers. Fortunately for us, we know who to call.
Since many of you have the same questions, we thought it might be useful to pose a question from a reader to an expert and print the response here. If you have a question you’d like answered, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, we have a reader who wondered about the proliferation of townhouses in Loudoun County.
When I came to Northern Virginia, I was surprised to see so many “townhouses” that weren't in a town. Why does Virginia have so many of these units where there are six or eight houses in a structure? I once rented one of these places. It was in Loudoun County and out in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was odd you could live so far out and still not be able to find a parking space.
Roger K. Lewis, who writes a regular column for The Washington Post on architectural design, planning, land-use regulation and smart growth, has written on this topic in the past. We asked him to respond.
Roger Lewis: Developers build townhouses in exurban locations like Loudoun County for two primary reasons:
First, regulatory entitlements: Most suburban and exurban counties, including Loudoun, tend to zone land — often prematurely — for low- to moderate-density, attached housing, even when zoned land is “in the middle of nowhere.” Despite being remote, such land is usually accessible to existing public roads and public utilities. For socioeconomic, demographic and fiscal reasons, suburban and exurban jurisdictions tend to favor zoning for townhouses (they are, after all, houses) over garden apartments. Also, townhouses generally yield fewer school-age children than single-family detached housing, considered a fiscal plus by most governments.
Second, cost and marketability: The cost of building townhouses (for land, site development and building construction) is substantially less than building single-family homes; the only housing type cheaper to build is walk-up garden apartments. Thus, the selling price of a townhouse is typically measurably less than a single-family detached house, which makes a townhouse more affordable for a larger number of households in search of a “house” to buy, especially in outlying areas where land is relatively inexpensive.
Lewis suggested we also contact Milton Herd, Loudoun County’s former planning director, to weigh in on this topic. Herd now has his own firm, Herd Planning and Design.
Milton Herd: Also be aware that localities have tended to rezone to townhouses at the request of landowner/developers, not on the government’s own initiative. Developers tend to want moderately high densities in suburban areas in order to get the optimal return from their investments in land and infrastructure, and townhouses strike a balance between high-cost, low-density single-family detached units, and higher-density multi-family units (apartments/condos).
For most of the past three decades, local governments have resisted higher density developments for many reasons, while developers have tended to want higher density in order to meet the market demand for reasonable priced housing and to maximize revenue from sales.
So townhouses have been a kind of “middle-ground” product that falls between the two extremes. I think you’ll tend to find similar patterns in many suburban metropolitan areas, because many of the same market and economic forces are at play. You would particularly expect to find townhouses as part of large, mixed-use “planned unit development” projects that include a range of unit types (single-family detached, townhouses and multi-family). These large projects are particularly common in Loudoun County and to a lesser degree in many other suburban fringe areas.