what's the difference between an apartment and a flat?
March 1, 2005 12:05 AM   Subscribe

A neighbour who's learning English has to write an explanation defining the difference between an apartment and a flat... and I just couldn't help her, because I didn't realise that there was a difference. I figured someone here might live in or know of a place where there's a distinct difference between the two. Can anyone help?
posted by bunglin jones to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
I'm pretty sure there isn't actually a difference, however, I suspect that what her teacher is thinking of is that a flat is owned, rather than rented (that is, a flat is the same thing as a condo). Again, I don't think her teacher is correct in this, but I think I have heard some people use the terms that way, and I suspect that's what her teacher is driving at.

Also, I belive that a flat is defined as being, well, flat - that is, it's on a single floor. For example, I would not call a duplex apartment a flat.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:16 AM on March 1, 2005

As an American, I'd never considered there was any difference beyond "flat" being the preferred word in British English. But when I lived in England a few years back, a friend of mine would always giggle when I said "apartment" -- when I finally asked her why, she said that "apartment" applied only to veddy veddy posh flats occupied by Sloane Rangers and the like. I have no idea if that's really a widespread sentiment there, or just her own take on the term.
posted by scody at 12:17 AM on March 1, 2005

In general, "apartment" is the North American English usage, and "flat" is the British English usage.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:21 AM on March 1, 2005

In San Francisco, it seems like the word "flat" is usually used to describe an apartment that takes up an entire floor of a converted victorian house.
posted by antimony at 12:26 AM on March 1, 2005

It seems to depend on where you are, and even then it's not quite clear. In the US, you rarely hear the term "flat". I've heard used here to mean an apartment that occupies an entire floor (as antimony said above), but I've also heard it used interchangably with "apartment". A Seattle rental site says that a flat has its own street entrance, whereas an apartment can only be entered from inside the building. According to this Belgian site, a flat is the same as a studio, and differs from an apartment in that the latter has a full kitchen and separate living room and bedroom(s). Then there's this Indian site says the difference is in ownership.

It seems as if almost everyone has their own take on it, so it's hard to say what your friend's teacher is looking for. Most Americans just go with AlexReynolds' explanation (I can't speak for the English), so perhaps that might do.
posted by Aster at 12:30 AM on March 1, 2005

Here in New Zealand, a "flat" can be any shared rental accomodation. NZ "flatmate" = US "roommate" or housemate. Young people go flatting. The kids next door are flatting - in a 4 bedroom bungalow. It's still a flat, in my lingo. "Student flats" can in fact be elderly villas of large size, as long as they are shared rentals. This seems precisely the opposite of kickingtheground's definition.

A "flat" can also be one unit in a building comprising several contiguous housing units, as long as it's one or two stories (a "block of flats"). This sounds more like the English definition.

In local parlance an "apartment" would be be a unit in a multistorey building, generally more than two stories, usually in a business district, with amenities such as a buzzer+remote controlled door, etc. It does have connotations of poshness, at least in the original intent if not the current state. When I was a kid in the 70s, the word was not in use at all. Recent changes in living habits and the rise of purpose-built accomodation blocks in the central city have introduced it. Connotations of prestige probably encourage developers to use the term too.

Usage above probably good for Australia also.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:33 AM on March 1, 2005

For what it's worth, I have also seen "apartment" used to refer to an individual's suite or set of rooms in a stately home or palace (including Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and others) -- with the connotation of an apartment as more of a subdivision of a greater whole as opposed to flat (something a bit more independent, although joined to other units).

Maybe this goes with what scody was saying?
posted by sueinnyc at 12:58 AM on March 1, 2005

In Buffalo, NY and the surrounding general region that I have lived in (I am currently now in Southern Ontario and this breakdown seems to apply here too), a flat is a unit that is the entire floor of a house (most often a house with a first-floor flat and a second-floor flat), a duplex is two units attached side by side (usually each with their own second floor, always with separate entrances), and an apartment is either in an apartment building or is in a multi-unit converted house in which no unit occupies an entire floor to itself.

"Apartment" does cover all of the above though, in general. "Flat" is assumed to be British English outside of that region's particular use of it (I never heard it used in Florida, for instance, but there are very few old houses broken up into smaller rental units in Florida, whereas they are quite common in Buffalo).
posted by Melinika at 1:45 AM on March 1, 2005

The Word Detective:
While few Americans not permanently addled by overexposure to PBS routinely refer to their apartments as "flats," it has been standard usage in Britain since the 19th century. One might logically assume that, because most "flats" occupy a single story of a building, the word simply comes from the "flatness" of the abode, and one would be largely correct. But "flat" in this sense is actually derived from the obsolete Scots word "flet," meaning "floor" or "interior of a house" back in the 15th century. Then again, that "flet" was derived from the same Germanic root as our modern adjective "flat," so you can probably safely ignore that little Scottish detour.
posted by pracowity at 3:19 AM on March 1, 2005

Exactly what sueinnyc said.
The poshness-apartment thing is, I think, from Europe, when the royals had a separate living suite inside a larger castle. This suite would be where they did their day-to-day living things, like sleeping and washing their faces. In the Louvre you can see Napoleon III's "apartments," which are his living quarters. How these got into the Louvre still baffles me.
This distinction is probably not at all helpful, and I have no idea what one would say in Australia.
posted by ohio at 5:01 AM on March 1, 2005

posted by brettski at 5:23 AM on March 1, 2005

In Buffalo many use "flat" as antimony said. Flat is when you have the entire floor to yourself, usually a converted house. Apartment is when there are other units on your floor.
posted by Kellydamnit at 6:01 AM on March 1, 2005

I'm a bit vague on this, as I haven't been in the UK for a few years, and when I was there I never considered buying property, but in UK there are two options for purchasing a flat - leasehold and freehold. AFAIK with leasehold, you buy a 99 year (or whatever) *lease* from the owner of the building, whereas with freehold, you buy the flat outright. I guess this is due to arcane UK property laws, that privilege the rights of large landholders. In the US, however, it seems you just buy the apartment outright.

Anyway more on leasehold here.
posted by carter at 7:09 AM on March 1, 2005

As with others, any time I have heard the term "flat" used in Canada or the US, it has been for an apartment that is an entire floor of a building -- usually a house that has been divided into apartments.

Building on what Carter said (and getting off-topic :-), you cannot have a freehold apartment in the US or Canada, though you can purchase them as condominiums, which are a form of ownership and not a lease. Real estate in the US and Canada is defined in two dimensions only. If you own a property, you own the air rights, the mineral rights, etc. (from the centre of the earth to the top of the atmosphere, it's all yours :-). Condominiums are a contractual way to define ownership of a space in 3 dimensions. You "own" the allocated part of the building and pay a fee to the condo corporation for shared expenses for the facility (and you are a voting member of this corporation).
posted by winston at 7:37 AM on March 1, 2005

i use "flat" unless i'm speaking to americans in which case i switch to "apartment" when i remember.
my parents normally use "flat" but decided to use "apartment" when they visited our flat (because it was "very nice", apparently).
we're all english.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:47 AM on March 1, 2005

In the US, however, it seems you just buy the apartment outright.

No, if you're buying, it's generally a condominium. Apartments are rented, usually on year-long leases but sometimes shorter (as short as month-to-month in some cases). If you're not renting, it's not an apartment.

You can also rent other types of dwellings (e.g. there's nothing to prevent you from renting a condo or a house -- "renting a condo" usually means you're renting a unit from a private owner in a condominium building, although some buildings may reserve a few for renting directly from the management company), but apartments are basically defined by their rentedness.
posted by kindall at 9:19 AM on March 1, 2005

...but apartments are basically defined by their rentedness.

Except in New York City, where "apartments" are often owned by their occupants.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:29 PM on March 1, 2005

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