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Suburbs going condo

For a lot of people, a townhome is the only starter home within reach.

Published February 13, 2004

MEADOW POINTE - They're tall, narrow, mostly two-story and offer a similar number of bedrooms and bathrooms as a regular house.

They're also some of the least expensive housing on the block, which accounts for the surge in popularity of townhomes.

A hybrid of an apartment and a single-family house, townhomes offer a relatively affordable way to become a homeowner in a fast-appreciating housing market, and builders have gotten into the act with a vengeance.

Meadow Pointe, one of the best-selling communities in the Tampa Bay area, has created a veritable townhome village near the intersection of Mansfield and Beardsley drives.

The latest phases of the Grand Oaks and Stagecoach communities include more than 400 townhomes on County Road 54 between Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel.

"Historically, they've been centered in the urban areas. Now you're seeing them as an entry-level option in the suburbs," said Tony Polito, director of the Metrostudy housing consulting firm in Tampa.

"Many cater to renters looking for their first buying opportunity. It's the only way to get in in the low 100s."

Polito's assessment fits newlyweds Jason and Maria Snider. The $89,000 townhome they bought in May in the Vermillion section of Meadow Pointe is the first home they've owned.

In their early 20s, they lived with their parents before last year's nuptials. Their 1,224-square-foot townhome is a natural for a couple desiring a low-cost, low-maintenance starter home.

Both are just getting started in careers: he as a housing appraiser, she as a teaching intern at Sand Pine Elementary School.

"It's better than renting," Snider said. "With renting, you're basically throwing your money away."

The key to townhomes' recent rise has been the relative high cost of single-family, stand-alone homes. Builders put townhomes in the ground for less: They take less space, demand smaller impact fees, and require fewer miles of utility pipes, roads and sidewalks.

"It's the only cheap alternative," said Tampa Bay area housing analyst Marvin Rose. "Interest rates are so low it makes no sense to rent an apartment."

Fox & Jacobs Homes, a division of the housing firm Centex, has built about half of its 260-unit Edgewater at Grand Oaks near Land O'Lakes.

Entry-level 1,286-square-foot models start at $110,000. Compare that to lower priced houses in Grand Oaks, which run about $150,000.

Premier Design Homes of Florida is charging $104,000 for its cheapest units at the Santa Fe at Stagecoach. The company's Meadow Pointe townhomes, Charlesworth, start at $108,900.

Charlesworth went on sale in May and has sold three-quarters of its 118 units. It's a success that sales manager Tom Wright attributes to townhomes' good value in the expensive New Tampa market.

It also illustrates potential drawbacks of townhome living. Having someone take care of your lawn, landscaping and trash collection comes with monthly maintenance fees that usually top $100.

Charlesworth charges $110 a month. That does not include a yearly $621 community development district fee for the right to live in Meadow Pointe.

It's higher than the $1,100 in total fees paid by owners of nearby Meadow Pointe single-family homes. But townhome fees, depending on the builder, can cover water, sewer and cable TV. House owners pay extra out of pocket.

Another potential problem is noise. If your neighbor likes heavy metal music at 4 a.m., the wall between the two units probably won't absorb the thumping.

And builders and homeowners associations are always fighting the tendency for townhomes to transform into rental units.

Young townhome owners like the Sniders view such housing as a way station to something bigger and more secluded.

"This is basically our starter. We plan to be here three to five years," Jason Snider said. "Then it's probably time to get a house."

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