What is a Flat? Complete Guide to this Home Type


In your search for a rental unit to call home, you’ll come across all sorts of terms. You may find some property listings advertising flats for rent or sale, and others seemingly listing the same type of properties but under the term “apartment.” You may be aware of what an apartment is, but what is a flat? 

A flat is a single-story self-contained housing unit that is part of a building complex. The terms “apartment” and “flat” are interchangeable. The “flat” is most commonly used in the U.K. and the “apartment” in the United States.

A flat is basically an apartment, although there may be some slight differences in how the terms are used in different locations. Read on to learn more about what distinguishes a flat from an apartment, the different types of flats/apartments, and the pros and cons of buying and renting a flat.

Is there a difference between a flat and an apartment?

What is a flat - 2
(Source: Steven HWG via Unsplash) – Flat in Singapore

The terms “flat” and “apartment” could be distinguished in the following ways:

Differences by locale

These terms are used so interchangeably that it can be difficult to pinpoint the difference. To make matters even worse, they are used differently depending on the location.

You’re more likely to hear the term “flat” being used in the U.K., so it can sound foreign when it’s used in North America. In British English, a flat is what an American would refer to as an “apartment.”

Any single residence in a building with other such residences will be called a flat in the U.K.

But when the term flat is used in the U.S, it can carry a different meaning. Though uncommon, in the U.S., an apartment that features several suites sharing communal spaces is sometimes referred to as a flat.

Apartment vs. flat — differences in luxury

While considerably a nuance, there is some variation in meaning when defining an apartment and a flat based on the level of luxury of each.

In the U.K., the term “apartment” can describe an upscale, posh flat. Similarly,  a resident in the U.S might have a different understanding of a unit referred to as a “flat.” In most cases, if a unit is referred to as a flat in the U.S., it can be understood to mean that the apartment is upscale or more luxurious.

Types of flats

Finding the right type of flat or apartment for you is not always straightforward as there are so many types of units to consider. Factors such as layout, price range, location, noise, and storage space should be considered when looking for an apartment. Here are the different types of flats:

  • Studio
What is a flat - 3
(Source: Emily Wang via Unsplash) – Flat in Holborn, London, United Kingdom

This is a small unit that features an open floor plan. It comprises a single room that serves as the living room, kitchen, and bedroom, with a separate room containing a complete bathroom. Common variations of studio flats include an alcove studio or a convertible studio.

This is similar to a traditional studio except for an L partition in the living room, known as a nook or alcove. Most people use the alcove as a sleeping area, and you’ll often find a curtain or wall-off being used to allow for more privacy.

This type of unit has a similar design to a traditional studio flat type, but in this case, the flat is spacious enough to allow the occupant to build a wall and create a separate bedroom.

A convertible flat is large enough to convert an area of the living space into an additional bedroom or secondary space. Alternative names for this type of unit include a convertible two-bedroom or two-bedroom flex.

Keep in mind that some apartments may not allow new walls to be put up or charge a fee for modifications made to the unit.

  • Micro flat

Micro flats are tiny one-room apartments that are approximately less than 350 square feet. They typically feature an area for sleeping and sitting, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. You’ll often find this type of unit in highly populated areas where the rent prices are high for a limited amount of space.

Most lofts have one large, open room with high ceilings. Other characteristics of this flat include expansive, high windows, exposed support beams, and brick – you will often find them in commercial buildings that have been renovated.

This is a multi-family flat that is made up of two units in one building. Flats in a duplex typically have their own main entrances and often have living spaces on two levels. The two flats will be similar in layout and size.

This is a single building that contains three flats. These units will feature private entrances as a duplex, contain multiple living spaces, and have an identical layout and size.

  • Co-op

Also known as cooperative housing, a co-op is a flat option that involves a corporation whereby you don’t own your unit outright. Instead, each resident is a part-owner in the corporation based on the relative size of the unit they live in. Typically, you’ll have to undergo an approval process through the building’s board, and there are also rules in place that you must follow to qualify.

This is usually a ground floor or basement unit that provides direct access to a private outdoor space. If you want to go for this type of unit, make sure you check your preferred choice in person, as they can often have pest and security problems.

  • High-rise flat 
What is a flat - 5
(Source: @mattlynch via twenty20)

You’ll typically find a high-rise flat or apartment in a building with 12 or more stories. Residents in this type of building and flat will likely have access to multiple elevators.

  • Mid-rise flat

A mid-rise flat is found in a 5 to 11 story apartment building. Residents in this unit type have access to one elevator. Mid-rise flats are common in an urban setting.

  • Low-rise flat
What is a flat - 4
(Source: Amel Majanovic via Unsplash) – Flat in Tbilisi

You will find this flat type in a building with 1 to 4 floors which may or may not have access to an elevator.

A railroad flat or apartment has a distinct design – it typically features three to four rooms connected without a hallway to form a long, thin rectangle. This type of unit is common in smaller and older buildings.

  • Walk-up flat

A walk-up unit is found in a building that stairs can only access. Buildings with this apartment type are usually smaller and have fewer tenants. Walk-up units can be more affordable, but they are considered less desirable because there is no elevator.

Should you rent or buy a flat?

Depending on the flat, you may have the option to buy in addition to renting. So which one is the best option for you?

Buying vs renting

When you buy a flat, it means that you can make any improvements you like ( as long as they’re within reason.)  When renting, you often need to get the go-ahead from your landlord for most things – even for simple things like hanging pictures and painting walls. Furthermore, some landlords may put restrictions such as a strict no-pets policy, which can be a dealbreaker for some people. That said, renting offers you the flexibility to move once your minimum tenancy period expires, which you won’t have if you opt to purchase a flat.

Rent vs mortgage

If you opt to buy a flat, you’ll likely take a mortgage to allow you to purchase the property. This is a hefty expense, and you’ll often find that a big chunk of your monthly mortgage payments is to cover the interest on the loan itself. This is why it takes a long time to pay off.

Renting, on the other hand, gives you a bit more flexibility in case your circumstances change. If you find that you can’t afford to live in your current flat, you can move to a place that offers lower rent. You also have a wider range of choices when choosing a place to live. 

Buying a flat in an upscale area might break the bank, but renting in the same area might be within your price range. On the flip side, paying rent every month doesn’t give you any returns, which is why renting is sometimes referred to as “dead money.” That said, you shouldn’t shun renting especially if it suits you better. 

In some cases, monthly mortgage payments could actually be cheaper in the long term than rent costs in the same location. Even though house prices have seen an astronomical increase in recent years, average rents have also seen an upward trajectory while the cost of mortgages has fallen. So it may be worth comparing the average costs for both options to help you determine which is best for you. 

Extra cash vs investment

If you are looking for affordable mortgage rates, you may find that you need to put down a deposit.  In most cases, you’ll need to put down at least five percent of the value of the flat. Saving money to make a larger deposit could mean that you don’t pay as much monthly, but this is easier said than done. That initial deposit serves as an investment in the flat, which could rise in value as time goes on. 

Consider renting a flat that doesn’t have any massive up-front costs. This way, it will be easier to deposit without having to save beforehand. Although it’s standard to pay the equivalent of a month’s rent upfront as a bond, doing this could potentially give you more cash to use or save in the short term. But that initial deposit is typically considered to be an investment in the flat, which could increase in value as time goes on.

Freedom vs responsibility

When you buy a flat, you take on a lot of responsibility. This means that if anything goes wrong in your unit – whether it’s a faulty central heating system or a leaking roof – it’s up to you to fix it. This can sometimes cost you dearly.

As a renter, it’s your landlord’s legal responsibility to handle these kinds of issues if they arise.

If DIY is not your thing, or you can’t afford to cover the costs for these kinds of repairs, then being a tenant might be a better fit for you.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking to rent (or buy) a flat, it may be useful to do your research to be fully aware of the type of housing unit that the term is referring to. This article provides you with handy information on what you need to know about flats.

Melanie Asiba

Melanie is an author. She enjoys traveling, reading and trying out new things. In addition to writing for Apartment ABC. Connect with her at [email protected]

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