Home Buying in San Francisco>Question Details

Vicky Gkiza, Other/Just Looking in San Francisco, CA

what is the difference between a condo and an apartment?

Asked by Vicky Gkiza, San Francisco, CA Tue Feb 3, 2009

A friend who just started looking at buying a property in SF sked me what 's the difference between a condo and an apartment. Well, i work at trulia, but i am not quite an expert...So, i figured, i should ask the experts instead!

Help the community by answering this question:


We call rentals apartments and owned units condos. I know it's differetn in Europe where I have clients selling two "apartments".
Per Barron's Dictionary of RealEstate Terms; Condominuim is a system of ownership of individual units in a multi unit structure, combined with joint ownership of commonly used property.
An Apartment is a dwelling unit within a multifamily structure, generally provided as rental housing.
It really is just about the same thing except for the ownership connotation and the joint ownership of the common areas.
Not to confuse the issue but condos are a form of PUD (Planned Unit Development) where the developer has certain responsibilities to the purchaser required by the State including setting up a home owners association.
2 votes Thank Flag Link Thu Feb 5, 2009
Jed Lane, Real Estate Pro in San Francisco, CA
Hi VIcky,

For real estate, a condo is a unit in a building where the owner owns his/her unit in full with air space rights. Said owner also owns a percentage of the common areas of the building. There can be anywhere from 1 other owner to hundreds.

A unit in a co-operative building is called an apartment because it is not a condominium. The owner owns shares (like stock) in the total building and his/her unit is his/her designated living space. Common areas are co-owned with others in the complex as well.

Both a condo and a co-op apartment can be sold by the owner of the unit. In a co-op, even though it is shares that are owned, for all intents and purposes, one owns one's unit.

In a rental building, each unit is also called an apartment. The difference is there is no ownership of the unit. A lease is usually required and the renter pays a monthly payment to the owner. He/she cannot sell his/her unit.

Hope that helps!


2 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Feb 4, 2009
Hi Vicky,

My guess is that in this case, apartment=TIC or Tenancy in Common.

A unit that is in a building that has not yet been "subdivided" would be an apartment. Whereas, if the building has been subdivided that unit is a condo.

For example:

6 unit building contains 6 apartments for sale.

If the buiding has been "condo-ized" or subdivided, then it has 6 condos for sale. If the building has not, it has 6 apartments for sale as TIC interests. (If the building is being sold as an "income-property," the apartments are still apartments.)

I hope this makes sense. We use legal descriptions of ownership styles (such as TIC) as legal descriptions of the actual property. That's not exactly accuarate but it is the jargon of our local San Francisco real estate market.

I assume your friend has a good agent representing her that she can ask these questions? If not, please send her to one of us! :)

I've got a lot of good first time SF home buyer info on my blog so check that out.


Danielle Lazier, Zephyr Real Estate
San Francisco Realtor
danielle (at) sfhotlist.com
1 vote Thank Flag Link Thu Feb 5, 2009
A condo does not share utilities like water. An apartment is usually considered a rental unit, however I have seen apartment complexes do what is call a co-op purchase. The difference is when you buy a condo you are a 100% share holder. In a co-op you may be a 1/16 or a 1/20 owner. This means it is a converted apartment complex that is selling off individual units. And the units may all share in one big water bill or one big insurance bill. These bills are then divided by the % of ownership you own. Someone in the complex may own 50% of the units and sold off the rest.
But you said a friend was buying property above. So I would think they have heard of both a co-op complex or apartments for sale and a condo complex. Not having anything to do with rental property any longer. The apartment was converted through the city so they could sell off units.
David Rivas
1 vote Thank Flag Link Tue Feb 3, 2009
Here's how I would answer it... A condo is a legal property type and thus describes a whole property - it's legally subdivided and could be a unit within a larger building or a single family style home within a subdivision. An apartment is a unit within a larger building and I would even suggest that the term is used more commonly with rentals. Regardless, an apartment describes a unit within a building, even though it may not be a whole parcel, legally. So a six unit building could be full of condos or not... Either way, each unit could be described as an apartment...

Hope that helps!

Jason Chapin
1 vote Thank Flag Link Tue Feb 3, 2009
we don't use "apartment" that much in SF except when referring to a place we rent. but for purchasing, you might refer to all unit ownership - condo, loft, TIC or coop - as an apartment.
Web Reference: http://www.SFisHOME.com
0 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Feb 4, 2009
Hi Vicky,

I believe the meaning has changed over time and varies by location. Shaban's answer is more in line with how the dictionary defines "apartment".

However, as far as the customs I've been exposed to, the most common distinction between the two are: an apartment is rented while a condominium is owned.

Someone from somewhere else with different customs may define them differently.

Sorry it's not more cut & dry.

0 votes Thank Flag Link Tue Feb 3, 2009
I view condos, TICs and co-ops all as "apartments," that is, units within a larger building. Condos are individually mapped units, while TICs (% ownership) and co-ops (securitized) are not.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Tue Feb 3, 2009
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