Reach back into your memory of ’80s and ’90s television, and see if you can recall the opening credits of “Full House and “All in the Family.” Those houses-where much mirth and merriment took place-are textbook examples of row houses.
Row houses are single-family homes that are built side by side and share a common wall and often a common look. Typically two to five stories, they feature living quarters on several floors, with a traditional layout of living space on the first floor and bedrooms above. Some models have a business below.
“Row homes are one of the most desired pieces of real estate available, especially in places like New York, Brooklyn, or San Francisco, where they are historical and, in some cases, rare,” says Daniela Sassoun, associate real estate broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
The history of row houses
Because of convenience, row houses became the construction style of choice starting in the 18th century in most major cities. Similar to the suburban track house, row houses could be built to maximize cost-effectiveness and efficiency by applying the “assembly line” method of construction.
Materials were bought in bulk, and crews built them one stage at a time. For example, plumbers would lay all the sewer pipes house by house; workers would roof them in batches. By hiring the right craftsmen for all the homes at the same time, they could save on costs and ensure projects stayed on schedule.
Row houses were also a desirable style, because they made an economic use of narrow lots, addressing the issue of land shortages and small lots in major cities.
Famous areas with row houses
Row houses are steeped in the history of these three cities:
- Philadelphia: It was dubbed the “City of Homes” near the end of the 19th century, as row homes sprouted up throughout Philadelphia’s streets and alleys. According to historical lore, the term “Philadelphia row” not only became synonymous with this city, but the terminology also spread to other cities as a way to describe this style of architecture-orderly rows of regularized houses.
- New York City: Here specific blocks represent different periods, says Sassoun. But in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, row home developers followed a master plan for zoning, so there are similar lot sizes per block, with the height organized so that they graduate in size, tallest ones closest to park areas. Sometimes a group of row homes was developed by the same family to allow all the children to live on the same street, says Sassoun.
- San Francisco: “Everywhere you look”-at least everywhere you look on tourist sites and in your visiting friends’ snapshots-you’ll see the most famous San Francisco row houses, known as the “Painted Ladies.” Yes, this is where the “Full House” folks supposedly lived, right across from Alamo Park. Built between 1892 and 1896, these seven houses are one of the most photographed areas of San Francisco.
Is a row house right for you?
“Row houses are desirable for city living because they offer enormous square footage that is often not available in an apartment or condo,” points out Sassoun. She says that today most are modernized, with roof gardens and private elevators.
However, most don’t offer backyards and, of course, there is the “neighbor” issue inherent in a shared wall. And, adds Sassoun, since it is a stand-alone property, rather than a co-op or condo, owners are responsible for all the maintenance, with no manager or board providing assistance. Row homes also frequently have landmark status, so owners can’t make drastic changes to the facade.
But for charm and convenience, they’re tough to beat.