What Is a Flat?

published Jul 22, 2022
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Credit: Jason Rampe

Although English is spoken in many countries aside from the U.S., there are still differences in speaking accents, word spellings, and specific terms — like bidding someone cheerio instead of goodbye. These are all endearing yet subtle nuances. However, if you’re moving to England and searching for a place to live, you may encounter a term that you should familiarize yourself with: flat

Americans use this word mainly as an adjective, but it also can describe a dwelling space. So, what does the term exactly mean, and is a flat… flat? Here’s your guide on what precisely a flat is and what to expect if you’d like to rent one. (You may already be living in one and not even realize it!)

What is the difference between a flat and an apartment?

If you’re heading overseas or renting from British folks in the U.S., they may use the term flat to describe their space, leaving you wondering what it includes. Although there are many styles of apartments, a flat is typically a grouping of rooms laid out on one level. You may have to climb stairs or take an elevator to get to your part of the house or complex, but once you’re inside, everything is on the same plane. Therefore, a flat apartment is indeed flat. But is a flat the same as an apartment? Essentially, a flat is an apartment, but not every apartment is a flat. 

What is a flat vs. apartment by definition?

When defining words, it’s best to go back to the origin of where the term came from. For example, apartment stems from the French word “appartement,” which is closely related to the Italian phrase “appartamento.” These root words relate to a separated place, where the English term apartment stems from. Therefore, an apartment is an apportioned set of rooms for folks to eat, sleep, bathe, and call their home.

The etymology of flat originates from the Old English word “flett,” dating back to the 1300s. The term means level and in one plane, which nowadays relates to many different things, such as a deflated tire, lying prone, and a dwelling on one story. Hence, the term flat is used to describe a one-level apartment. Quite often these spaces are in older buildings and have lots of character.

Credit: Erin Derby

What is a flat apartment like?

Although flats provide one-level living, that doesn’t mean they are simple or uninteresting. Some single-floor apartments have just the basics, such as a bedroom, bathroom, and shared space for cooking and living. Then there are more lavish flats that include multiple bedrooms and separate rooms for living, cooking, and eating. Some may even have a patio or balcony to create an outdoor area. 

Who should live in a flat?

Flat apartments are perfect for folks who don’t want to live on more than one level. Older folks can also benefit from not having to navigate steps. However, those with little children, small pets, or bulky furniture can also benefit from living in a flat. So, whether you’re traveling through England or are searching for someplace to rent, a one-level apartment could be perfect for your needs.