Apartment vs Flat (Quick Easy Guide)

So what IS the difference between an Apartment and a Flat? Is there really any difference at all?

Let’s find out. 

Apartment vs Flat: The Distinctions

Both an Apartment and a Flat are both used to denote a place where someone can live.  And both terms mean multiple rooms in a larger building meant to house people. 

An apartment was originally called so because they were compartmentalized units that different people lived in on the same floor

A flat is called so because the entire floor is typically rented to one tenant.  The building a flat is in typically has more than one story, which each entire story rented out to a single tenant. 

Now, more than one person can occupy a flat, such as a single-family or flatmates, but the entire floor of the building is meant for one group of people to rent and occupy. 

The last feature of Apartments is that they can have more than one floor in specific situations.  

Take, for instance, the downtown areas of New York City or Chicago.  These are hugely populated areas and thus the city has been forced to build up instead of out.  In these instances, there may be cases where an apartment occupies two floors of a building.

This is most commonly known as a Maisonette.  If the apartment occupies 3 floors of the same building, then it would be referred to as a Triplex.

British vs. American

Largely the biggest difference in the term Flat and Apartment comes from your location.  Virtually all the nuances and subtleties people intend when using the term is determined by where they live.  

For common usage, they mean essentially the same thing: a part of a building used for someone’s residence.  If you are British or are in any part of the U.K. or Australia or New Zealand, chances are you are going to refer to an apartment as a Flat, and if you are in America, you are going to refer to a flat as an Apartment.  

A Flat is used in the U.K. and refers to a self-contained housing unit that is almost always on one floor.  Many times, a building will be several stories. 

The owner of the building will occupy one full story of the building and rent the rest out as Flats.  The part of the building they are renting out is usually one full story of the building.  

The Flat will have everything a single-family home or typical American apartment will have.  A self-contained bathroom, private dining room, kitchen, and sleeping areas, as well as private living areas.  Nothing is generally shared in Flats unless you have a Flatmate, which would translate to Roommate for Americans.  

A Flat is also something in British culture that can be used or appointed to be used, during holidays.  The American equivalent of this would be a family or multiple families owning a single apartment or single-family home down in another state where they all get together to vacation a couple of times a year. 

They only reason you would ever need to use the term Flat in America is if you were looking for housing close to a college campus, and want multiple suites on the floor, but a shared bathroom or living space, as near college campuses are typically the only place in America where they particular setup is found. 

Technically, you would be able to use the term Flat if you were wanting to rent out the entire floor in a building meant to rent out apartments.  However, this is probably not going to be the case as the lingo for America would rather have you say Single-Floor Rental as opposed to Flat.  

Difference Between Apartment And Flat

While the most common usage of the terms is ubiquitous, there are a few subtle differences.  Many times, it would be tough to determine these differences without a great deal of background context or knowing exactly what the person is referring to. 

For example, in the U.K., if someone says, “Let’s have dinner at my Flat.”, you normally would infer that the person has a low-to-medium quality residence that is relatively small in a building with other such Flats occupying the floors above or below.

If instead, they say, “Let’s have dinner at my Apartment.”, it has quite a different meaning.  The term Apartment in the U.K. and Commonwealth nations refers to a more upscale dwelling in a posher location.  The apartment is more than likely quite expensive, well-maintained, and in a very good neighborhood. The term Apartment would also be used in professional real estate in the U.K.

In the U.K., oftentimes flats are rented out of building in urban areas that are several stories high.  So, say for example that a building has 4 stories, it would be called a 4-Flat House. If a building had 3 stories, and all 3 of them were rented out, it would be called a 3-Flat House, and so on. 

The Cold Flat is now largely a term of the past as it has been replaced as technology has advanced and gotten cheaper.  A Cold-Flat is an apartment that has no running hot water. This is now illegal in most developed countries and the building code and rental laws do not allow this, but they were common in major cities’ urban areas until around 1950. 

A Studio-Apartment/Flat has the living room, the kitchen, and the bedroom into a single room in the middle of the apartment.  Most times the bathroom is located en-suite, or like the setup you would see in most hotel rooms.

But the primary living space is concentrated into one single, usually square area where the bed, the kitchen, the living room, and dining room are all compact into a very small area. 

Buy or Own?

Another major feature of Apartments is that in America, they are normally just for renting, not buying.  The same goes for Flats in the U.K. and Commonwealth nations, Flats are rented, not typically purchased.  

The exception for this is when you are referring to an Apartment in the U.K.  Here, the higher quality dwelling can be bought in some circumstances, as there is a market for them in upscale areas.  

In the same way, in upscale neighborhoods of urban areas in a major city such as New York City, for example, apartments can be bought straight from the developer and put back on the market like a house when the owner wants to sell. 

What is the difference between an Apartment, a Flat, and a Condo?

Primarily apartments in America are normally indicated to be rented out, just like Flats in the U.K.  Condominiums or Condos are meant to be owned in the U.S., just like Apartments can be owned in the U.K. 

A Condo would not be considered a Flat because the ownership generally resides in the person who is living in the Condo.  Whereas with a Flat or Apartment (In America), the ownership of the Apartment or Flat lies with the landlord, not with the tenant who is actually living in the Apartment. 

While there are several small different characteristics that set apart the terms Flat and Apartment, there are probably more similarities than not.  They both essentially refer to an Apartment someone is renting out to live in. In the U.K., they call it a Flat, and in America, they call it an Apartment. 

Remember, in the U.K., calling a dwelling an Apartment is going to carry with its denotation of higher class luxury that is going to be located in a very nice neighborhood.   

The primary difference between the terms is that a Flat denotes a dwelling that occupies the entire floor of a building, usually with multiple floors, that are rented out to a tenant.  Each floor of that building would typically be rented out to other tenants doing the same thing. 

An Apartment, on the other hand, is used to denote that on the same floor, there may be multiple units of individually rented out units to different tenants.   The only common areas in apartment buildings tend to be the hallways and stairs, and there can be many units occupying the same building one right next to the other one.  

Finally comes ownership.  In the U.K., you would rent a flat and own an apartment.  In the United States, you would rent an apartment from a landlord, and you would purchase a condo. 

The exception for this rule is when you start talking about multi-million dollar apartments if they can even be called that anymore, in the skyline of major metropolitan areas.   

We hope this clears up two terms with very little true difference, but with a plethora of nuance and distinction depending on where the terms are being used. 

However, once you understand the subtleties of the terms and the way that different regions around the world use them, most of the ubiquitous-ness of the two terms can be put to rest.  

So if you are going apartment hunting in the U.K., use the term Flat. 

And if you are Flat hunting in America, use the term Apartment.

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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