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I have never really understood the connotation of someone calling their domicile a condo over the word apartment. I have a vague feeling the former is fancier and more up-scale, but are there any real differences I'm not aware of?

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In the UK, they're just flats, some of which are bought and sold, and others are rented. –  Colin Fine May 24 '11 at 12:56
@Colin: apartment in New York City means what flat means in the U.K. In much of the rest of the U.S., an apartment is a rented flat and a condo is a flat that you own. See my answer. This is the source of much confusion even among Americans. –  Peter Shor May 24 '11 at 20:53
@Peter: Colin's point is that there isn't a meaningful distinction in the UK. "Condominium" is an uncommon arbitrary marketing label over here –  user1579 May 25 '11 at 14:51

7 Answers 7

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The question as asked assumes an established relationship between "condo" and apartment" that is faulty. This is partly the foundation for the confusion. Even after a lengthy discussion like that above still leaves people confused is because the "definitions" being offered are still unsatisfactory and not conforming to a reality people innately understand but can't articulate.

A condominium (or "condo") is an ownership structure along with "cooperative" and "fee simple". A condo tells you, among other things, how ownership of the unit (residential, retail, commercial, etc,) and common spaces are divided or held. It does not describe any occupancy or physical characteristic of a unit. Any occupancy type (housing, retail, office commercial, industrial, etc.) can be structured as any one of these ownership structures, including as a condominium.

Therefore, and contrary to common belief, a condominium is not a type of housing. In NYC , Chicago, and many large cities, there are buildings that contain condos but have no residential units. They are office buildings, retail malls, or some combination of the two. The reason why so many people falsely believe that a condominium is a type of housing is because residential condominiums are the only iteration of a condominium with which they are familiar.

An apartment is a descriptive term. It describes a physical characteristic of a residential unit- being that it is one dwelling unit contained in one building structure. Contrary to common belief, an apartment is not housing that is for rent. It may be but not necessarily. Most people come to associate apartments as strictly rental housing because this is the iteration with which they are most familiar. (If apartments were strictly housing for rent, then the phrase "apartment for rent" would be grammatically redundant. It is not.)

Therefore, an apartment (a residential unit, supposedly among many, in a structure) can itself be structured as a condominium or cooperative. A series of apartments contained in one structure (for example an apartment building) can be structured as fee simple (a building owned by a single entity). The same series of apartments can also be structured as individual condos/coops (owned by several or only one entity).

You can overlay any ownership structure with any housing description. This can be expanded to whole developments. For example Kinzie Park in Chicago is a 6.5-acre development that has a high-rise tower, a mid-rise building, and many townhouses. All 300 units are structured as condominiums. Even the parking spaces are deeded as condos. You can even have multiple ownership structures in one development with one or multiple occupancies. However most people are already confused enough so I won't add to it.

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In the US, a condominium involves an investment of funds, and is similar to buying a house. A person actually owns a condominium and can sell it for a return on investment. Also, they can use it as collateral for borrowing money.

An apartment is rented/leased from a landlord/landlady. Rental payments go to the owner, and the tenant does not own the property, so cannot borrow against it. When a person moves out of an apartment, they may receive their security deposit back, but that's about it.

I think owning a condo probably is considered more high-class than renting an apartment. Many, many rich people in New York City own condos, for instance, and brag about it.

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I wouldn't say that condo ownership is for rich folks or for bragging. Perhaps if you're at a prestigious address in New York, but in general it's simply a way to have ownership in a dense-housing situation. We live in a 12-story condo in the city, while my parents just retired to a 3-story condo in a retirement community in the country. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:11
@Wayne Yes, I agree with you. I meant only to convey that owning a condo is probably regarded similarly to owning a house; if you own property, you're likely to be seen has having higher social standing. –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 13:24
@Kit: I agree. I was being a bit picky since many posters here are not native-speakers or living in the US/UK, etc, and wanted to make sure that the connotation we're attaching to the word is balanced. As you say, other things being equal renting is lower in status than owning, with the American Dream historically including home ownership. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:35
To be clear, the terms condo/condominum and apartment are physically the same space, which word to use is from the perspective of ownership. You may own a condo (have the legal ownership rights to the space), but then you may rent that one space out to someone else, and it's an apartment to them but a condo to you. You may own a own a building and then everybody living their paying rent live in apartments. –  Mitch May 24 '11 at 13:41
@Rhodri, Kerryman. You have condo and co-op backwards. In NYC, at least, a co-op is a building that is owned in common among all the shareholders, each of whom gets the right to live in a unit in the co-op. With a condo, you own a single unit in the building. This difference, and the vagaries of New York state laws, leaves co-op dwellers vulnerable to certain shenanigans in which the building can be legally "stolen" from then. –  Peter Shor May 24 '11 at 21:00

There is a big difference in the USA. In a condominium, the ownership of a building is divided into shares and ownership of some of those shares gives the right to live in a particular part of the building. In the event that you want to sell those shares, the other shareholders in the building must approve the transfer, so if they do not like the new purchaser they may block the transaction. Equally, some condominiums restrict letting the property.

In a Co-op, the apartment is owned by the individual and in many, while the management company of the building has the right to refuse transfer to a new purchaser, it instead must buy the property itself. Although usually cheaper, Condos are viewed as more 'snobby' because there is a degree of social acceptance that goes with them.

EDIT: Not sure I agree with all the answers following my first post. When I lived in NYC I owned an apartment in a co-op, a high-rise in NY10021. Some of my neighbours were renting, others were owner occupants. All were called apartments and labelled as such on the mail boxes in the lobby. The bank would not lend to me (resident alien) to buy a condo, because of resale/renting issues should something go wrong, which is why I bought (and could only borrow for) a co-op. It might be different outside NYC, I've no property-owning experience there. Some people bragged about ‘condos’ and saw a benefit in owning one. I thought this was rubbish, as I considered having to flaunt supposed ‘social acceptance’ as pathetic. I also believed that the big disadvantages inherent in that type of restrictive ownership outweighed the relatively minor advantage of lower acquisition price.

In Europe, a flat is an apartment, either owned or rented, and colloquially means either a student’s rented accommodation, or a second, smaller residence of a temporary nature e.g. ‘I keep a flat in the City for a convenience.’ Sometimes the latter is called a pied-a-terre, literally (French) ‘a foot in the ground.’ A flat often is used to describe a unit in a sub-divided property, whereas an apartment usually is in a purpose-built block. The terms 'condo' and 'co-op' are not used for property in Ireland/UK/France. BTW, in Ireland and the UK a co-op is where a farmer buys cattle feed ;-)

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These are some nice details. Do you have some good links for this information? –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 11:46
In the US you can also have strata (ie condo) houses so it doesn't necessarily always mean the same as an apartment/flat –  mgb May 24 '11 at 12:58
Not strictly correct. We live in a condo and other owners do not have to approve our sale. There are overall limits as to what percentage of units can be rented out (to preserve property values), but you can sell to anyone and without permission. My guess would be that you've swapped "condo" and "co-op" in their meanings. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:09
@Martin: I lived in one of these strata houses (didn't know the name). From the outside, they looked like townhouses, but the units overlapped each other: the garage of one unit was underneath the other unit. So they were technically condos. Not sure of the legal distinctions, and not sure why they felt the need to arrange them that way. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:30
@kit - condos here were to reduce costs! All the unit owners own the outer building/services in common, collect a condo fee and decide how/when to pay for maintenance etc. The idea was to keep costs lower than having a developer own the building and charge whatever they wanted. –  mgb May 24 '11 at 17:21

A condominium does not describe housing. It is strictly a form of ownership and is a legally defined term. All states have acts that define what is a condominium. An office building, a mall, anything can be a condominium.

Moreover, a residential condominium can take any form: an apartment, a townhouse, a free-standing structure (among others), etc. I work on a development that had a highrise building, a mid-rise building, townhomes, and a small store, and all of them were legally structured as condominiums. Again, condominium only describes the structure of ownership.

The term apartment describes any unit, among many others contained in one structure; it is a unit "apart" from the others. It does not matter whether these units are rented, owned, or cooperatives, or a mix. Think of this, if apartments were dwellings for rent, then the phrase apartment for rent would be redundant, but it is not.

In conclusion, a condominium is a ownership structure (along with free-hold and cooperative) and an apartment is a descriptive term.

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This is indeed completely correct in Canada, both legally and informally. In casual conversation in much of the U.S., this is not what these words mean. –  Peter Shor Nov 10 '11 at 22:58

Something none of the answers have pointed out yet is that the meaning of apartment is different in New York City and in most of the rest of the U.S. In New York City, an apartment is a single unit in a multi-unit residential building, regardless of whether you rent or own it, and of whether the ownership is legally a condo or co-op arrangement (so apartment in NYC means the same thing that flat means in the U.K.). In most of the rest of the U.S., an apartment is a rented single unit in a multi-unit residential building.

This means that in most of the U.S., if you live in a multi-unit residential building, you either live in an apartment, a co-op, or a condo. In New York City, and in much of Canada, your apartment will either be a rental, a co-op, or a condo (or a sublet, if you lease it from somebody who in turn is renting it themself).

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And from Dave's answer, the NYC definition of apartment also holds in Canada. (Although given their relative sizes, maybe it should be called the Canadian definition.) –  Peter Shor May 25 '11 at 0:40

I'd say that an apartment is any single dwelling in a multi-unit building. I wouldn't consider the two halves of a duplex to be apartments, nor would a townhouse unit be considered an apartment. But if a house was divided up into units, they would each be considered apartments.

Condo, which is short for condominium, is mostly the subset of apartments where the individual living units are owned by different people. That isn't to say that the actual people living in each unit own the unit, because they may be renting from someone else that owns the individual unit. Also, townhouses can be condominiums.

Condominiums also have the concept of having shared facilities and maintenance costs, in which the individual unit owners also have an interest. Generally, the condominium complex has a corporation which owns it, and the individual owners are participants in it to some degree.

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In the U.S., the meaning of apartment varies geographically. I'd say you're giving the New York City definition. Is that where you are from, or is this definition geographically broader than NYC? –  Peter Shor May 24 '11 at 21:14
No, I'm in Canada and I'd be fairly certain that meaning of "apartment" would hold across the country. I'd take apartment to be equivalent of the English "flat", with no indication of rental or ownership of the unit. –  Dave May 24 '11 at 23:51

Condos tend to be in complexes rather than single buildings. Additionally, a condo is purchased and owned, whereas an apartment is rented.

This Link has some good info about condos.

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Someone has to own an apartment. –  Matt Эллен May 24 '11 at 12:19
@Matt: "Someone has to own an apartment" implies that each apartment is individually owned, but of course the apartment building as a whole is owned by a company and each individual apartment is rented by someone. Each apartment isn't individually owned. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:16
@Wayne: In some cases that is true, but it is fine for someone to own their apartment, and yet have it as part of a building they do not own. My landlord owns my flat, but does not own the whole building. –  Matt Эллен May 24 '11 at 13:18
@Matt: Then I'd say you technically live in a condo or co-op and are subleasing. Just as my neighbor is about to move and rent his condo unit. The term "apartment" can be used loosely to refer to a unit in a high-rise -- for example, the US Postal service considers us to live in Apartment 42, but it's not an apartment. We're getting technical here, and as I said people may loosely use apartment to refer to apartments, condos, co-ops, etc, the original question involved condo versus apartment so I think we need to be technical here. –  Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:24
@Matt, @Wayne: In New York City, a unit in a multi-unit residential building is called an apartment regardless of ownership. However, in most of the rest of the U.S. such a unit has to be rented to be called an apartment. –  Peter Shor May 24 '11 at 20:48

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