What is an Apartment?

The Term Has Taken on Two Different Meanings

Contemporary residential town apartments
Martin Leigh/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Many people say they live in an apartment, and just about everyone claims to know what one is. But how, exactly, do you define the word "apartment"?

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

But what about a single-family house that the owner rents to a tenant? Even though the rental is a house (or maybe just part of a house, such as when an owner lives there and rents just the basement), it's still often referred to as an apartment.

With this in mind, it seems the term "apartment" perhaps should be defined as a residential rental of any type.

This sounds good -- until you consider co-ops and condos.

Co-ops and condos may physically resemble rental apartments, but the key difference is they're not rentals. It seems that co-ops and condos should, however, be included in the definition of an apartment. After all, many of the same apartment living topics 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

As you can see from the above discussion, the definition of an apartment is a bit complex, and in both common parlance and the media, you'll notice the word being used in different ways.

But it's easiest to think of "apartment" as having the following two basic meanings:

  • Meaning #1: A living space in a residential building. When people use the term "apartment" this way, it's architectural 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's still an apartment. This definition includes co-ops and condos.
  • Meaning #2: Any rented living space. This definition excludes living spaces in which the residents are the owners. So, co-ops and condos aren't apartments under this definition (except for the situation in which the current resident is renting the co-op or condo from its owner). Also, if the inhabitants of a single-family house pay rent to live there, then (from their perspective) the house is their apartment.

How Is 'Apartment' Used on This Site?

On the About.com Apartment Living / Rental site, I cover a wide range of topics of overlapping importance to all types of apartment dwellers. For example, someone who rents a single-family house must be concerned about paying rent and getting a landlord's attention when they need repairs, just as someone who rents a unit in a multifamily building. And co-op and condo owners may have to deal with difficult neighbors or take steps to prevent pest infestations, just like renters.

So, you'll see the term "apartment" used both ways, as appropriate, and the definition should be clear from the context.