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?
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.
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!
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).
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.
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 ;-)
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.
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.
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.