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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
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@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

8 Answers 8

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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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I find this very interesting because I own a condominium and am curious if a similar scheme of ownership exists in the UK. I guess it does in Canada, called either "condominium" as here in the U-S, or "strata title," which is, I understand, what the same concept is called in Australia and New Zealand. The "strata," I'm told, refers to the individual units/flats/apartments because they are on different levels/floors or "strata."

I DO say "I live in a Condo" and not "I live in an apartment." This is because a condo owner in the U-S is considered a "fee simple" property owner. In legal benefits--and obligations--I am equal to any other property owner. Plus, those of us who live in our property holdings ("homesteading," it's called in America) have even greater rights; it's legally my "home", and U-S and state law goes a long way to protect one and their "home."

I am sure part of my pride is in the historic significance of property ownership in our shared traditions and what it has meant for one's situation. So, yeah, I'm pretty proud of having achieved home ownership!

In condominium ownership, there are two major real estate components: 1) the individual unit/flat (colloquially, unit/apartment/condo/flat) and 2) the multi-unit building and its common areas (which colloquially is also called "condo" or "condos.")

I purchased--and own outright--the unit/flat I live in. [There is a mortgage on it, but that's a contract between me and the bank that loaned me the money to buy it-it's the same type of mortgage you'd take out to buy a plot of real estate with a single dwelling home on it.]

I OWN my unit/flat--the four outer walls and everything between them--"fee simple" is the legal term. It is mine to do with as I wish, from decorating, or remodeling (I could knock down inner walls if I really wanted to), to selling to someone else, to choosing who inherits it from me.

I mentioned I have the same benefits--and obligations--as any other property owner. The best example of this is that I am, individually as the unit/flat owner, levied property taxes--not the multi-unit building in which the unit and I reside. The individual units/apartments/flats/condos and their owners must each pay their own taxes.

When I bought my condo/flat, I also bought a percentage of the shared, or "common" areas, including the building itself. The "percentage" of the building would be 100 divided by whatever number of units there are in the building. But, for all practical purposes, that percentage doesn't matter. What matters is that a condo owner automatically becomes a member of the Home Owner Association (HOA), also called the "Condominium (or Condo) Association." It's an obligation you take on as a condo owner.

The HOA is required by law to meet once a year (but can meet more often if it desires) and elects from among their ranks a Board of Directors, approves a yearly budget, the Association Dues for the upcoming year to pay for the Association's operations, and vote on any big decisions that the Board cannot make on its own (each HOA/Condo Association has a charter or by-laws, and rules and regulations, approved by the membership--the owners--which guides the association and its board day-to day.) The Board of Directors handles day-to-day operations for the owners/association. The Board meets at least monthly and hires and pays a property manager, sees that vendors are hired and paid to handle such things as snow removal, lawn maintenance, garbage removal, and regular building maintenance (all things OUTSIDE the individual units). They also enforce the rules and regs approved by the owners, including collecting association dues, fees, and fines, as required.

It is the monthly "association dues" which provide the funds for the Board to run the condominium association's day-to-day operations. The monthly dues paid by us owners almost always differs by unit/flat; in my case, we are each charged based on the square footage of our individual unit. Again, the dues and how they are computed are determined by the owners when we meet in that "Annual Condominium Homeowners Association Meeting." By the way, another state law is that those annual meetings don't count unless a quorum of owners assemblies, thus preventing a few from trying to hi-jack the Board or Association and run a building/condo without pa majority of owners consent. Indeed, most condo association by-laws also prohibit one individual from owning more than a certain percentage of units/flats in the building. As the time for the Annual Meeting comes around, we are notified a few months ahead, submit candidacy if one wishes to run, and all are asked to provide paper proxies and vote on the candidates and major questions if unable to attend the Annual Meeting. It's a big deal.

The biggest difference, as I can tell, between the condominium concept and the cooperative concept is the ownership of individual units/flats. In co-ops, the owners each "buy-in" to the company ("cooperative") which owns the land and building. Technically, they don't own their own units--they own a little bit of everything. Say, there are 10 units. I buy-in. Now, I own 10% stock in the cooperative, or 10% of land and building.

So, does the UK have anything in which one would buy a flat/unit/apartment and--aside the shared or common areas and outer shell of the building--would, under tax and other laws, have the rights and responsibilities concerning that unit as a fee simple property owner? That is, the right to modify the unit, to right to sell or bequeath it? Those property rights also belonging to someone who owns a plot of land with a single dwelling building?

Hope the above helped clarify the concept of condominiums. Perhaps it made it clear. Perhaps it made it clear as mud!

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This is on the long (very) side. Would you kindly trim it a bit? Thanks, and welcome to ELU. :) –  medica Oct 3 at 2:46
    
Yes, this could do with some editing and try not to ask questions in answers. –  deadly Oct 3 at 8:21

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

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

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
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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
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@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

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

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
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@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
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@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

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
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@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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