One of the more common descriptors found in apartment listings is “duplex.”

But what is a duplex exactly, and what should your expectation be when you see “duplex for rent” in a listing? In fact, there are multiple definitions for a duplex house or apartment, depending who you ask and where they live.

No matter how you define it, a duplex is a versatile rental style that combines the convenience of an apartment and the privacy of a traditional house.

The common definition of duplex

The most common and general definition of a duplex in most of the U.S. is two separate single family units in one building on a single lot, often house-like, connected by a shared wall or floor and with separate entrances to the outside. This, to most, is the definition of both a duplex house because of the style of unit as well as a duplex apartment as it is a rental.

Duplexes can be side-by-side or up/down, where each floor is a distinct unit. Inside, they have all the rooms one would expect from an apartment or home, but often feature amenities a little less common in apartment buildings or complexes such as in-unit laundry, porches and patios, backyards, driveways and occasionally garages. The entire building – both sides or both floors – is usually owned by a sole proprietor, who also owns the property on which the duplex sits.

A New York duplex apartment

In New York, there is a much different definition of a duplex for rent, which is akin to what is also known as a maisonette.

A Manhattan duplex is often a single-occupancy apartment in a tall building spread over two floors connected by an indoor (often spiral) staircase. These are considered duplex apartments, which are in many ways the opposite of a duplex house. And while multi-family unit duplexes are an affordable option for those seeking a home-like experience, Manhattan single-unit duplexes – which are even sometimes penthouses – can often be some of the most expensive rental property in the city.

These units are frequent in neighborhoods like Tribeca, NoHo, Chelsea, West Village and the Meatpacking District, as well as along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. This definition is also commonplace in Chicago’s loop and areas surrounding downtown.

What else is a duplex?

Some other U.S. cities have very specific definitions for duplex rentals. In Dallas, it is “two-dwelling units located on a lot.” Philadelphia’s definition is “a dwelling occupied as the residence of two families under one roof, each family occupying a single unit.”

And conversely, some cities have different terms for the traditional definition of a duplex, including San Francisco where a duplex is officially called a “two-family dwelling” and in rust belt cities like Buffalo and Detroit where you’ll see the term “two-flat.”

In Canada, many large cities specifically define a duplex house only as a two-family dwelling with one unit above the other with separate entrances. In other words, two floors and not side-by-side units.

Making your decision

There are many advantages to choosing a duplex for rent, including house-like amenities, yards and privacy. They can offer the affordability of an apartment with the benefits of a home. Unless that is, you live in New York and your duplex is a multimillion-dollar apartment, in which case you’d be happy trading that driveway for an incredible Central Park view.

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