What is a Penthouse Apartment?

Penthouse apartments carry an air of presumed exclusivity and instant desirability, and, for the most part, rightly so. More often than not, they are among the largest and most luxuriously appointed homes within a given building, and they most certainly have the most expansive views. But while there are few if any "bad" penthouses in town, listings containing the term "penthouse" can mean different things, depending on the building, and the neighborhood, and the realtor.

1.) Traditional Description of a Penthouse Apartment

The strict, architectural definition of a penthouse apartment is a single-occupancy living space actually built onto the rooftop--an additional floor (or, in the case of a duplex apartment, an additional two floors), if you will, piled atop the building--with setbacks all around providing terraces with spectacular views. Because the rooftop setbacks comprise considerably more square footage than standard terraces, penthouse apartments such as these are ideal for people for whom private outdoor living space is at a premium. Depending on individual building codes and restrictions, penthouse apartments of this type can feature amenities more often found in suburban back yards, such as large, finished decks with picnic tables and chaise lounge; fancy barbecue pits and cooking areas; flower and/or vegetable gardens (and in some cases small trees); play equipment for kids or workout and/or yoga space for adults.

2.) Modern Use of the Term "Penthouse"

There are plenty of penthouse apartments that meet the above criteria, but many buildings use the term a little more loosely. A penthouse can also simply mean a single-occupancy living space that takes up the entire, uppermost floor of a building, and not one built onto the roof with setbacks. This is particularly true in new high-rise buildings, where a terrace on the 50th-80th floor may not have the same appeal. These top-floor penthouse apartments are, needless to say, often huge, with private, locked elevator entrances; higher, vaulted ceilings; fireplaces, Jacuzzis and even "endless pools" for swimming; balconies and terraces; and oversized windows—and, in contemporary luxury towers, floor-to-ceiling windows—that take full advantage of the glorious, often unobstructed, views of the cityscape. Sometimes apartments such as these also afford residents access to private rooftop decks, with dining and sunning and exercise areas, adding to the special nature of the space. Because the term "penthouse" has come to be synonymous with a luxurious, even hedonistic, lifestyle—it was no accident that Bob Guccione named his aspirational men's magazine Penthouse, with the tag line, Life on Top, instead of, say, Classic 6. It's also become a marketing ploy. Some buildings also advertise penthouse apartments that are simply on one of the uppermost one to four floors, rather than being on the top floor itself. They may or may not take up an entire floor. However, even if there is more than one per floor, they still have unique (and more expansive) floor plans. These are often quite lovely apartments in and of themselves, with beautiful views and other luxury amenities, and if not the strict definition of a penthouse, they offer much of the same level of sophistication and exclusivity. Some real estate agents (and developers), in a bid to make an apartment sound more special than it is, have taken to calling any apartment on the top floor a penthouse. However, these apartments follow the exact same floor plan, or footprint, as all the other apartments on all the other floors in its line, and have no special finishes. Don't be fooled an overpay! Yes, top floor apartment generally command a slightly higher rent or sale price than units below, but only a true penthouse should command a much higher price.
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