What is a Penthouse Apartment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A penthouse apartment is an apartment located on the top floor of a building, with the term usually being used in reference to apartments in high rise buildings. Penthouses are generally regarded as luxury real estate, and they can be extremely expensive, not least because they take up an entire floor. The history of the penthouse apartment is rather interesting, and illustrates the way in which trends in architecture change.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In architectural terms, a penthouse is a structure on the roof of a building which takes up less than half of the roof. Historically, the penthouse was used to house mechanics such as the controls for the elevator system, heating and cooling systems, and so forth. The penthouse was often little more than a shack or lean-to, and was definitely not considered desirable real estate.

In 1920s New York, when Americans had money to burn and people wanted to take advantage of this, the idea of creating a luxury apartment on the top floor or floors of a building was born. The first penthouse apartments made the news, and the penthouse apartment quickly became a necessary feature on high rise buildings, with several dedicating multiple top floors to penthouses. Far from being an undesirable location, the penthouse apartment turned into the cream of the crop in the real estate world.

Penthouse apartments are strongly associated with luxury for a good reason. In addition to lavish size, a penthouse apartment is often on multiple levels, and it typically has a large outdoor area such as a terrace or patio. Penthouses are also luxuriously appointed, with meticulous interior design and the finest fittings, from high-end appliances to unique and costly flooring. Prices for penthouses are often extremely high, whether one is buying or renting, and ownership of such properties is typically limited to the wealthiest members of society.

Access to a penthouse apartment is usually provided by a separate elevator. Residents can also access a number of building services, such as pickup and delivery of everything from dry cleaning to dinner; reservations to restaurants and events made by building staffers; and other concierge services which other residents of the building may be required to pay a premium for.

Due to the high cost of a penthouse apartment, most real estate agents and rental agencies will not even show a penthouse until a customer has produced proof that he or she can pay. This is designed to cut down on the number of gawkers traipsing through a penthouse when it enters the market, and to avoid the tremendous waste of time involved in working with clients who cannot actually afford a penthouse. Typically, these apartments are handled by specialists who work exclusively with high end real estate.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Though the majority of us could never afford to live it a penthouse apartment, renting one for a special vacation makes a memorable experience. Many condominiums in popular vacation areas offer penthouse rentals that are spacious, beautiful, and provide spectacular views.

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