When a home is not a house

Housing is news. Sales of new and existing homes are an important indicator of the state of the economy. And in New York, a city of tiny living spaces, housing is practically an obsession. (So is its cost. “The New York question” is “How much?”) When you’re covering  housing issues, it’s important to get the terminology right.

Housing is the collective term for the places where people live. Business writers spend a lot of time reporting on the housing market. A housing crisis usually means a crisis in the availability or affordability of places to live.  In the media, the mortgage crisis that triggered the 2008 recession is often called a housing crisis.

A home is any place you hang your hat. (“Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” is a song from a 1946 Broadway musical; the title has become a catchphrase. So has “a house is not a home,” from a 1964 song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.) It refers not just to the physical space, but often to the dweller’s emotional attachment to that space. (Yet another catchphrase: “Home is where the heart is.”)

In New York and environs, a home is generally a house or an an apartment (which the British would call a flat). A house usually refers to a freestanding dwelling, as in a single-family house. 

An apartment can be a rental, a co-op or a condo. New York is one of the few places in the United States where it’s not necessarily  considered a sin — money thrown away — to rent an apartment over the long term, thanks in part to the city’s long history of rent control and rent stabilization. If you have the money, you can buy a co-op or a condo. What’s the difference between them?

In co-op (short for cooperative) buildings, as my old boss Paul Goldberger writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “you aren’t technically buying an apartment in them but rather shares of stock in a tenant-controlled corporation that owns the building.” In other words, the homeowner doesn’t own the space, but rather a share in the building proportional to that space. In a condo (short for condominium) building, the homeowner buys the physical unit.

Notice how I said homeowner.  Whether you own a house, a condo or a co-op, you’re a homeowner.

New Yorkers tend to say “my building,” as opposed to “my house,”  because most of us, at least in Manhattan, live in apartment buildings rather than houses. But the term can be confusing because even high-rise buildings in public housing projects post signs with greetings like “Welcome to Grant Houses.”

Now that you know the vocabulary, are these sentences from students this semester correct or incorrect?


New home sales were flat in March. For single-family houses, sales slumped to 384,000, according to U.S. Department of Commerce’s latest report.

Correct on both counts. New home sales refer to sales of all new homes, be they houses, condos or co-ops. And single-family houses is a precise description of a category.


After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on October 29 in 2012, 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Again correct, because those 650,000 homes could have taken any of the forms mentioned above. Also note the name of the federal department:  Housing and Urban Development. (The writer does need to check style for rendering dates.)


Today, empty houses are a common sight on Staten Island. 

Correct. The author is talking specifically about houses.


The pace of the house market’s recovery is slowing down.

Incorrect. The story was about all forms of housing.



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