8 Things in Your House You’re Probably Calling by the Wrong Name

published Dec 11, 2020
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Old new england colonial home dating from 1735 in Concord, Massachusetts, USA
Credit: Christian Delbert | Shutterstock

There’s an endless lexicon of home design and architectural terms that many of us are blissfully unaware of. After all, you needn’t have a comprehensive understanding of wainscoting styles for your partner to get the drift when you say you like the look of “those wood panel thingies.” But if you want to communicate your tastes more clearly to an interior designer or architect, it can help to know the precise terms they use. 

Cathedral ceilings vs. vaulted ceilings

The fact is, a lot of us (real estate writers like myself included) can be a little fast and loose with our design terminology. For instance, though people toss around the term pretty liberally, cathedral ceilings aren’t just any high, lofty ceilings—they have symmetrically sloping sides that meet at a center ridge more than a story high, and generally match the slope of the rest of the roof. A vaulted ceiling, on the other hand, can refer to any raised ceiling, even if it’s just on one side of a room. 

Credit: Olha Trotsenko/Shutterstock

Granite countertops

Real estate agents are among the worst offenders, says Dana Bull, a real estate investor and realtor at Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead, Mass. The nuances of stone surfaces are lost on a lot of homebuyers and realtors alike. “All types of stone counters tend to be ‘granite,’ but there are a lot of different materials, like quartz and quartzite,” she says. 

Those two surfaces are often confused, too. Quartz is a super-durable, engineered countertop made from crushed quartz, pigments, and resin. Because it’s manufactured, you can get it in almost any color or grain pattern desired, including ones that resemble granite or marble. More expensive quartzite counters, meanwhile, are made of natural stone, each a unique slab mined from a quarry, like granite or marble. 

Marble gets over-attributed, too, Bull says, with people using the term for anything that looks remotely like the soft, luxurious stone. “A lot of the tiles are actually ceramic and not marble,” she says. 

Porcelain vs. ceramic tiles

Speaking of tile, a lot of homeowners don’t understand the difference between porcelain and ceramic tiles, says Denise Rush, dean of the school of interior architecture at The Boston Architectural College. “Many times I hear those terms used interchangeably, and they’re different products,” she says, though it can be hard to tell the difference once they’re installed. 

That is, until they break. While ceramic tile has a glaze on top, pricier porcelain is more durable and solid throughout. “When you break or chip a ceramic tile, you’ll see the clay body underneath—you don’t see that in porcelain,” Rush says. “If it’s in a heavy traffic area where things could drop on it, if it does break or crack, you see the same color on the top all the way through.” 


“People get really confused by wainscoting,” Bull adds. “There are different types, like board and batten, raised versus flat panel, and beadboard.” Board and batten is a simple pattern of narrow, raised wooden strips (battens) with wider boards between them. Flat panel wainscoting echoes the clean, uniform style of Shaker cabinetry, as opposed to the more traditional and formal raised panel look. And beadboard is a series of thin, vertical strips separated only by a narrow gap (the bead). 

Trim and molding

The same goes for trim and molding, Rush says, especially up near the ceiling. “They say, ‘Look at the lovely crown molding.’ Well, that’s not really crown—crown is more elaborate. It has parts and pieces to make it look like one piece, but it’s actually multiple pieces of carved wood.”  

Linoleum vs. vinyl flooring

Getting back to floors, people often mistakenly call vinyl flooring linoleum. And while these two flexible flooring materials can look and feel similar underfoot, they’re remarkably different in important ways. 

Linoleum is made from natural linseed oil, making it a safe and ecologically sustainable choice, says Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network. But vinyl flooring, made of stuff like chlorine gas and petroleum, is the product of a toxic and energy-intensive production process, Walsh says, and is virtually impossible to recycle. “Throughout its life cycle, vinyl is, in our opinion, the worst plastic for the environment,” he says. 

Palladian windows

Even if homebuyers have a good grasp of modern design terms and materials, they’re often less familiar with historic architectural elements, says John Petraglia, a Massachusetts-based realtor and founder of Antique Homes Magazine. “I often hear the term Palladian window used incorrectly—applied liberally to any arched top window, regardless of whether it’s flanked by two additional sets of sash,” Petraglia says. 

Credit: Alexis Buryk


The plank floors of antique homes are another common source of confusion, Petraglia says. “Pumpkin Pine, Kings Pine, and Heart Pine all get used interchangeably to describe what is most typically Northern Pitch Pine—a common, hard, slow-growth species of wood typically used in the 18th century for flooring boards in New England,” Petraglia says. In other areas, particularly the South, such floorboards were commonly milled from Southern Longleaf Yellow Pine. But what makes them all so special is that there’s barely any of that old-growth forest left in North America. 

True heart pine was sourced from the core of ancient, old-growth timber—we’re talking dense, 200- to 500-year-old trees that grew just an inch in diameter every 30 years. While today’s pine is considered a softwood, the dense growth rings of this lumber made it very hard and durable (which is why you might still be lucky enough to have it underfoot centuries later). Pumpkin pine refers to the warm, orange patina some of these boards naturally acquired over time.  

King’s pine, meanwhile, is reserved for Colonial-era floorboards that are two feet wide or more. Back then, King George II had claimed the largest, sturdiest pine trees—anything more than 24 inches around—as property of England. So these extra-wide pine planks have a rebellious backstory, sourced in direct violation of English law. 

Even if you can’t tell porcelain tile from ceramic, at the very least, it helps to familiarize yourself with your home’s architectural style. “We never expect our clients to know architectural terms, just as they don’t expect us to know the terminologies used in their careers and specialties,” says Julie Palmer, president of Charlie Allen Renovations in Cambridge, Mass. “But for owners of period houses, recognizing the correct term for your home’s architectural style can be helpful whether you’re planning a sensitive restoration or remodeling project or just listing your home for sale.”