What Defines an Apartment?

Contemporary residential town apartments

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Many people say they live in an apartment, and just about everyone claims to know what one is, but how, exactly, do you define it? The term "apartment" can be generically applied to any residential unit inside a building. The building can be a house, townhouse, large residential building, and even condominium high-rise where owners sublet their units. Generally, what sets apartments apart from the rest is that they are rented units and not owned.

Flat vs. Rental Unit vs. Apartment

The terms "flat," "rental unit," and "apartment" can be used interchangeably. Their use varies on regional differences. A flat is a British term, while a unit is the preferred term in Australia. North America usage favors the term "apartment," although it is fairly common to hear the term "rental unit" by real estate brokers and landlords.

The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of an apartment is a residential unit inside a building. From this image, it may seem logical to say that an apartment is simply a single living space, among others within a building.

So then, what about a single-family house that the owner rents to a tenant? Even though the rental is a house, it can also be referred to as an apartment.

Co-op and Condo Conundrum

Many people think that co-ops and condos are apartments since they are residential units in a multi-residence building, and they physically resemble rental apartments. However, these are not rentals (unless the unit is being subleased). In a sublet situation, the owner of the condo or co-op decides to rent out their unit. In that case, it becomes a rental apartment.

It sometimes seems that co-ops and condos should, however, be included in the definition of an apartment. After all, many of the same living conditions apply, and co-op and condo owners often refer to their home as an apartment and include the term in their address (such as "Apt. 4C").

What It All Means

The definition of an apartment can be a bit complex, regionally appropriate, and differ greatly depending on common parlance and the media.

The simplest breakdown of "apartment" comes down to two basic meanings:

  • A living space in a residential building: When people use the term "apartment" this way, it is an architectural designation and without regard to legal ownership issues. The living space may consist of one room or a set of rooms, and it may be one of a few or several such spaces in the building. In other words, whether the inhabitants of the space rent or own it, it is still an apartment. This definition includes co-ops and condos.
  • Any rented living space. This definition excludes living spaces in which the residents are the owners. So, co-ops and condos are not apartments under this definition. If the inhabitants of a single-family house pay rent to live there, then (from their perspective) the house is their apartment.

Once that is all squared away, then there is the matter of apartment type. The variety runs the gamut from garden apartments, loft apartments, penthouse, and studio apartments, and apartments categorized by the number of bedrooms, and so on.