House types explained: What’s the difference between a house, townhouse, terrace, semi, duplex and villa?

(Credits to KATE FARRELLY,


What’s the difference between a house and a terrace, a semi and a duplex, a townhouse and a villa?


Town planner and Consult Planning director Aaron Sweet says there are 10 different classes of building under the Building Code of Australia, but dwelling definitions change from state to state and council to council.

“We’re a nation of colonies, and each has held onto its own land title system,” says Sweet.

This means you may need to check in with your local council or a town planner to understand what you’re buying or what you’re allowed to develop on your block.

“The planning system is highly complicated and constantly evolving,” says Sweet. “An experienced town planner can sniff things out very quickly and can give an investor, purchaser or developer a wealth of information on what applies to any given site.”

These are some of our most common dwelling types and how they differ from one another.


Freestanding house

Once the mainstay of the Australian property market, freestanding houses are stand-alone dwellings and buyers own the land and any built forms within its boundaries.

Sweet says these single, detached dwellings can be “traditional or small lot” and can include a secondary dwelling like a granny flat on the same title.

Land size varies hugely, often diminishing from the outer to the middle ring suburbs.

Considered the most flexible dwelling type, a freestanding house can be knocked down, renovated or extended provided it complies with council regulations.

They’re a popular choice among families with young children because they usually have more accommodation and garden space for playing. But they are generally the most expensive dwelling type, and the associated land rates, insurance, utility and maintenance bills can be high.

Most lenders are happy to finance a freestanding house, and historically, this type of property has appreciated more quickly than medium and high-density dwellings. 



Typically found in the inner city, terraces proliferated in the late 1800s and early 1900s before falling out of favour in the mid-1900s. Back in fashion today both for their relative affordability and their promise of low-maintenance living close to amenities, older terraces are being renovated, and new-style terraces are increasingly making their way into master-planned communities.

Ranging from a single storey to four storeys in height, often with two to four bedrooms, and front and back gardens or courtyards, terraces are sometimes freestanding but more often share party walls.

Older terrace stock tends to come with a Torrens Title, which means you own the land the property sits on, while newer developments may be strata-titled, particularly if they have access to communal facilities.



A single dwelling that shares one common wall with the neighbouring house, the semi was once the poor cousin of the freestanding house. Today, semis are often a more affordable option for buyers with a smaller footprint and a backyard that may double as off-street parking.

Popular in the years leading up to and following Federation, many semis have been sympathetically updated or extended retaining period features.

Offering more privacy than an apartment or townhouse but less maintenance than a house, semis can be found in some of our country’s finest suburbs with steep prices to match.



The modern equivalent of a semi, a duplex is defined as two dwellings under one roof with one shared wall. Sweet says that in Brisbane duplexes can be beside each other, on an upper and lower level or completely detached.

“From a town planner’s point of view, a duplex is defined as a self-contained dwelling,” he says.

They can be on a single title or two titles, allowing each dwelling to be individually owned and sold. Duplexes usually require a building insurance policy that covers both homes.

Because they require less land than two freestanding homes, duplexes are a popular investment vehicle, dishing up two rental incomes comparable with two detached houses, but at a lower land cost.

There’s only one neighbour to consult when planning changes and usually a decent backyard for pets and play.



A townhouse is a self-contained property, sometimes attached and sometimes freestanding, within a complex of three or more dwellings. The buyer owns the dwelling but shares ownership of the land and common property with other owners in the complex.

They usually have a courtyard for outdoor dining and a garage or carport for parking.

Most are strata-titled, which means buyers must pay annual levies to a body corporate that takes care of common property maintenance, insurance and compliance matters.

But in Brisbane, a new hybrid model offering freehold townhomes is gaining ground.

Sweet says under the City Plan 2014, Brisbane City Council will generally support subdivision below the usual minimum lot size where they have already approved the built form for the development.

In practical terms, this means buyers can purchase a freehold townhome and avoid ongoing body corporate fees.

“In some cases, common areas such as shared accessways may need to be covered by easements,” says Sweet. “In other cases, these may form common property with access areas only being subject to a body corporate, a kind of hybrid scenario.”



In some states, including Queensland, the terms townhouse and villa are interchangeable, but in others, like Victoria and NSW, a villa is often considered a dwelling type in its own right, defined as a small, single-level home usually with an attached garage and a private courtyard within a small complex of dwellings.

In some states, the term villa is also applied to holiday lettings grouped on private property.

Like townhouses, they are generally strata titled which means owners need to pay body corporate fees, but some newer villa developments come with Torrens Title.