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Is There a Difference Between a Flat and an Apartment?

Questions for the ages: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What's the difference between an apartment vs. a flat? Really, this is something that has been plaguing people. Go back in time...

Questions for the ages: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What's the difference between an apartment vs. a flat? Really, this is something that has been plaguing people.

Go back in time to the Internet Stone Age, the early 2000s, and people from Stack Exchange to Reddit fell on their swords over something that seems pretty simple to answer. Those in the U.S. call their place an apartment and those in the United Kingdom call their place a flat. So, synonyms, right? Au contraire (to throw some French into the mix), there's more going on than meets the linguistic eye.

The Differences Between an Apartment and a Flat

The word "apartment" comes from the Italian word "appartamento," used to describe a suite of rooms located in a larger building. Appartamento derives from the verb "appartere," which means to separate. In North America, an apartment refers to any suite of rooms for sleeping, eating, and bathing.

Flat derives from the Old English (via Proto-Germanic) "flett," "a dwelling, hall, floor, ground." In the 1800s, a flat meant the floor or part of a floor set up as an apartment. (There's the synonym, again. These two just can't escape each other, much like the Americans and Brits. Think of "Ted Lasso.")

Now, while the U.S. is made of immigrants from all over the world, and there were plenty of people with German backgrounds during the nation's founding, one would think "flat" might have made its mark. But it's just something to ponder. There's no answer as to why that didn't happen.

Apartment vs. Flat: American Style

Dig a little deeper and you'll find more layers to these words, at least according to the online discussion groups. One Stack Exchange respondent wrote that the term "apartment" in the U.S. and Western Canada is for a "rented residence in a multi-unit building. If the residences are owned, they're called condos."

Someone else wrote that apartments are often, but not always, a single story. And "if you're in a multi-story residence with no one above or below your unit, but there are residences on both sides, it's called a 'townhouse.' If there are just two residences in the same building, it's a 'duplex.'"

And yet, in Chicago, a two-story building with a legal apartment on each floor is known as a "two-flat" and not a duplex. The same holds true for a three-apartment building. These are known as three-flats in Chicago and triplexes everywhere else. Although a triplex might be known as a "three-decker" in New England.

Set of flats Set of flats

Apartment vs. Flat: British Style

In British usage, a flat is usually a set of rooms on one floor, something without stairs. In some United Kingdom countries, "flat" connotes a residence of lesser quality, while "apartment" refers to a flat that's more upscale and luxurious. It might be a well-appointed holiday (vacation to Americans) get-away. Basically, the use of the word "apartment" in the U.K. is more of a marketing term.

In Britain, too, there are variations on the term "flat." Something with one room (which Americans might call a studio) is often called a "bedsit" or "studio flat." A flat owned by the local council that's rented to lower-income folks is a "council flat." A whole building full of flats is a "block of flats." Condos are "owner-occupied flats." Once they get to duplexes, they head right into a "semi-detached house."

Language, Language

As George Bernard Shaw said, "England and America are two countries separated by the same language." They toss their trash in a dustbin and we toss ours in the garbage can. We use the restroom or go to the bathroom and they find the loo or the toilet. We store our gear in the car's trunk and glove compartment and they put theirs in the boot and the glove box.

An "apartment" by any other name is still just a set of rooms in which you live. So, whether you call it a flat or an apartment makes no difference. Potato. Potahto. Let's call the whole thing off.