What Is a Penthouse? It May Not Mean What You Think It Means

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What is a penthouse, really? Penthouses have a long association with wealth and class. Many urban apartment buildings only have a single penthouse unit, so there are a relatively low number of them even in major cities. However, a genuine penthouse apartment is more complicated than you might think.

Here are some things to know about penthouses before looking for one.

What Is a Penthouse?

Is the apartment or condominium you’re looking at actually a penthouse?

You might assume so, but there are different definitions and connotations in specific regions. Some developers like to call something a penthouse when it shouldn’t technically qualify.

So, what is a penthouse? A real penthouse is a residential or commercial space located on either the top floor or the roof of a building. A penthouse can be part of a larger development, but it can also be a standalone structure.

Most people associate penthouses with luxury and a degree of exclusivity because they have outstanding locations and luxury amenities. Most also have far more square footage than single apartments on the floors below, though that’s not a formal requirement.

Are Penthouses on the Top Floor?

At a minimum, penthouses should be on the top floor of a building. However, developers sometimes try to stretch this definition. By using staggered roofs and setbacks, a builder may try to create several different penthouses.

Penthouses do not necessarily need to cover the whole upper floor, either. A true penthouse apartment will usually cover the entire floor, but in high-rise buildings, developers may try to squeeze several penthouses in.

Common Penthouse Amenities

Here are some common amenities that builders include in penthouses.

Vaulted Ceilings

Vaulted ceilings and ceiling windows help create a sensation of even more space. Since the top-floor unit doesn’t have to worry about anything above, it’s easy to work with this feature for luxury apartments. The windows often give unobstructed views of city sights, including panoramic views if the windows go around the apartment.

Beautiful Views

Penthouses with particularly excellent views, such as a look at Central Park in New York City, tend to be particularly prized.


Luxury features also include things like balconies and rooftop decks, which offer an opportunity to step outside and enjoy fresher air. A top-floor unit can be high, so these may have additional safety measures.

Private Elevators or Entrances

Some penthouses have private elevators or at least low-use elevators that only connect to a few upper floors. These can significantly reduce the time you spend waiting to go up tall buildings. Similarly, they could have private entrances so you can go in and out without seeing (or being seen by) other people.

Private Pool

The outer walls of a penthouse won’t necessarily match the main shape of the building. For example, a penthouse may have a U design that encases a private pool – this is separate from any common swimming pool that a residential building may have.

Oversized Living Spaces

The history of penthouses is almost as long as that of taller apartment buildings, and you can argue that it stretches back to castles and other fortified locations. However, these days, developers tend to plan on expansive living spaces and add additional spaces based on the specific needs and preferences of buyers.

Private Sellers

Penthouses may be sold separately from the rest of the building, too, which can be an important detail in a crowded city where luxury condos are otherwise plentiful.

What Are the Advantages of Having a Penthouse?

There are many advantages to buying a penthouse. Extra space is a major luxury in urban environments, especially when living spaces in other so-called luxury units can be tight. Even on-the-floor penthouses can have a lot of room, and that’s not counting the flexibility of extra-high ceilings.

The penthouse premium pricing also includes things that can be hard to find elsewhere, like some of the best views of a city skyline.

Interestingly, current market conditions don’t affect the average rent price of a penthouse as much as you might think. While some areas of the country see rapid development, penthouses are inherently restricted even if developers get sneaky and try to squeeze a few more into any specific building. They’re always in demand and always valuable.


The high demand means that penthouses can be an excellent investment. Most of them are so high up that they’re built to handle colder temperatures with no problem, while their first-class amenities, frequent access to concierge services, and exclusive elevator access make them far more luxurious overall.


Some penthouses have distinctive architectural features that make them stand out even more. For example, paying the penthouse premium may get you things like a rooftop waterfall that pumps water from street level.

The ceiling height also allows more than a floor-to-ceiling window; you can get indoor features like raised viewing areas.

Many penthouses also have a lot of history behind them. Starting with early buyers like media mogul Condé Montrose Nast, and continuing through modern companies like Warburg Realty, the exclusive nature of penthouses means that almost all of them have had multiple famous people living in them in the past.


There’s always demand for penthouses, regardless of things like architectural features. Having a whole-floor apartment means that buyers of a penthouse suite are often rich enough to fully personalize the space, and extra amenities just add to the existing benefits of these facilities.

The demand for penthouses isn’t likely to reduce anytime in the foreseeable future, as the mere concept of penthouse suite locations makes them inherently appealing to many buyers. The penthouse meaning may change here and there, but in the end, creative exploitation of roof spaces tends to win out.

The addition of common spaces has some other perks that aren’t immediately obvious. In some cases, movie directors hope to film city events inside the penthouse and may seek to rent it out for a while. This is particularly true in expensive cities where owning a penthouse set isn’t realistic. If you don’t mind the home being on display, the demand for penthouses in movies adds some extra spice to living there.

Other Benefits

Beyond all this, a penthouse suite usually benefits from the same building services as any other apartments and commercial spaces in the area. This can include dedicated repair staff, building security, and sometimes even access to help with real estate investing. Many real estate blogs and real estate news companies pay attention to penthouses thanks to their sheer value.

In short, penthouses can be an excellent value for buyers. Whether you want to live there or just rent it out, the concept of penthouse living, the luxurious common spaces, and the creative exploitation of roof spaces means there’s always something to love.

What Are the Cons of Buying a Penthouse?

The term penthouse brings premium prices to mind, and with good reason. Many of them benefit from a lot of outdoor space in environments where flat ground space is at an incredible premium. Luxury real estate is already expensive in places like New York City, but penthouses take it to a completely different level.

Location Issues

One of the main reasons penthouses are only available in expensive cities is that additional cities literally cannot support them. Two main factors tie into this.

  • First, skyscrapers require sufficient foundational support in the form of bedrock to rest on. Skyscrapers are extraordinarily heavy, and they need a foundation strong enough to hold potentially thousands of people, plus the building itself.
  • Second, they need sufficient population density and return on investment. Contrary to popular rumor, skyscrapers don’t rise just because there’s bedrock there. It’s more about the economics of the area as long as the bedrock is somehow accessible. Smaller locations can’t support the kind of dense population that skyscrapers require.

Without skyscrapers, you don’t have true penthouses. This means there’s essentially no such thing as a budget penthouse. They’re only in expensive cities, as additional cities have no way to support them, and the very penthouse meaning of luxury keeps things locked up tight. A way to balance this issue is to check out some underrated cities in the U.S. that may still have skyscrapers, but have a lower cost of living.


The limited development of apartments also means that markets will do more than keep the cost of rent high. There’s essentially no such thing as affordable rent in penthouses for most people because they’re in such high demand that they rarely stay on the market for long.

Penthouses aren’t like Airbnb, where it was briefly sensible to make rental investments.

Similarly, you don’t just rent for studio use when you have a penthouse. It’s essentially all or nothing. The expansive views also come with a downside because they can be more exposed to people outside the building, including those with telescopes. Some people find this very uncomfortable.

Space Issues

Penthouses tend to be large, but depending on the design, they may have more limited storage space than you might expect. That’s an unfortunate penalty considering the cost of rent you’re already looking at. Alternative investments can provide much more space for your money, although property owners may prefer the exclusive location and excellent views.

Structural Problems

As the top floor of buildings, penthouses also bear the brunt of problems like roof leaks. You can face issues like mold or ceiling damage that people nestled comfortably in the middle of the building don’t have to worry about. Luxury furnishings are expensive, so keeping the roof in good repair is critical.

Elevator rides can also get quite long. Shorter apartment buildings, which don’t truly qualify for penthouses, are easy enough. However, if you have to go up dozens of floors, that takes time. Consider installing a television in the elevator.

More Location Issues

More unfortunately, penthouses can also be somewhat further away from things like schools, public transportation, and shopping centers. Don’t underestimate that kind of impact on your personal life.

You can mitigate this with things like personal shopping services and taxis, but adult life means living in a penthouse can result in longer transit times than in other areas.

It may sound like there are many disadvantages to buying a penthouse, but it’s worth noting that these haven’t cooled the demand in major markets. The expansive views and luxurious accommodations are often an acceptable tradeoff for the impacts on adult life, especially because the limited development of apartments means there will never be enough to satisfy demand.


Here are some common questions that people have about penthouses.

Why do they call them penthouses?

The name penthouse comes from “apentis”, an Old French word that essentially means an attached building or appendage. Penthouses are somewhat separate from the building they’re on, so the name stuck. The original term also mixes in “pente” (Middle French for ‘slope’) with the obvious English word house.

Many penthouses are essentially smaller floors on top of an existing building, so they contribute to an overall sloped look on the roof.

What is so special about penthouses?

The most notable thing about penthouses is their outstanding views of major markets. Things like luxury accommodations are possible in units of almost any size, but penthouses can command the best views.

Penthouses also tend to come with other features and benefits for residents, like private elevator access and exclusive entryways.

Finally, there’s the exclusivity factor. Many people love having something that other people don’t, especially those wealthy enough to buy anything common without worrying about the price.

Penthouses are tightly limited in number compared to the number of people who want to own them, so you may not be able to buy or rent one even if you don’t have to worry about the price. In that regard, penthouses are a popular status symbol.

Are penthouses expensive?

Yes. Penthouses tend to be among the most expensive residential real estate, with a cost of rent that significantly surpasses what you’ll find elsewhere.

Realistically, if you have to ask about the price, then it’s not an affordable rent for you. New York City has a few hundred penthouses, and the average price is over $8 million to buy outright.

Are penthouses the entire floor?

Not always. Some penthouses cover the entire upper floor, possibly including outdoor space. However, builders sometimes put several apartments on the top floor and call all of them penthouses.

Also, some buildings have penthouses that are back from the main walls of the building. This can be done to add a terrace or garden space, but it also means that the penthouse isn’t truly an entire floor of the building.

Let’s take a hypothetical skyscraper that’s 100′ by 100′ square. The top floor of such a building is 10,000 square feet. If a penthouse covers a 50′ x 50′ square on the roof, that’s only 2500 feet (1/4 of the available floor).

Property owners may limit the size of a penthouse because they want to use part of the roof for other purposes. That could include water systems, electrical panels, air conditioning, and other things.

What’s the difference between apartments and penthouses?

The biggest difference between apartments and penthouses is that penthouses are located on the top of a building and tend to be more luxurious, with panoramic views of the area.

As any professional property manager can explain, penthouses usually feature more space, unique features, and special benefits that other people in an apartment building can’t get access to.

Penthouses are also an alternative investment category to regular apartments. Their unique features and higher cost mean that customers who have the credit score on their credit report to qualify for an apartment may not be anywhere close to renting a penthouse.

Are penthouses always on the top floor?

No. While a traditional penthouse occupies the top floor of a building, it may cover several floors instead. Some developers even put units they call the penthouse below the top floor if the highest area would, for some reason, have a worse view.

Do penthouses have an upstairs area?

Some penthouses have a multi-floor design that can include an upstairs area. Creative floor plans may even include a basement area below the main entrance to the penthouse, without the same views of the surrounding area.

Penthouse designs are often heavily customized to match the building they’re in, so there are no firm rules on whether they need to have an upstairs area or not.

Why do people live in penthouses?

Many people like living in areas that come across as the best or most luxurious option. While too expensive for most people, they can still have affordable rent for some, especially if they’re rental investments for the property owners.

Penthouses also offer luxuries that can be difficult to get in many cities, including more space and personal outdoor areas.

Are penthouses safe to live in?

Penthouses are one of the safest places to live. As they’re on the top floor of a building, it nearly eliminates the chance of anyone sneaking in. They’d have to climb up the building or parachute in, and most buildings have enough security to detect that quickly.

That’s on top of any internal security measures, which often start with highly restricted elevator access and sometimes even private entrances.

In short, penthouses have multiple security levels before you even reach the front door, and that’s not counting anything inside it. They are among the most well-protected places in any city.

Do celebrities live in penthouses?

Some celebrities live in penthouses. A lot of this depends on things like where they’re working and how long they plan to stay there. Many celebrities enjoy the safety and security of a penthouse, while others appreciate being able to host many guests.

Why do rich people rent penthouses?

While their reasons vary, many wealthy people appreciate having the flexibility of renting. They probably own homes elsewhere, but they can stop renting a penthouse whenever they don’t want to live there anymore. This works better for them than long-term ownership of such an expensive location.

Are penthouses cold?

No. Heat rises, and penthouses have an entire building’s worth of warmer air coming up to them. This means that penthouses tend to be the most naturally warm unit in an apartment, and that counteracts the cold from being at higher altitudes.

Well-made penthouses have plenty of insulation, too, which keeps the heat at a comfortable level. Most also have heating and cooling units, and the cost of running these is negligible when you own a penthouse.

Are penthouses soundproof?

Penthouses may not be completely soundproof, but property owners notice that they tend to be quieter than other apartments. There are two reasons for this.

First, penthouses are so far above the street that almost no noise reaches up so far.

Second, there are rarely close neighbors, and anyone who lives on the floors below is probably separated by thicker flooring than usual.

Together, these factors mean that penthouses are almost always some of the quietest units in a city.

How can I find upcoming open houses for penthouses near me?

The best way to find information on things like open houses for penthouses is by searching online and signing up for emails. You can choose to get emails instantly, daily, weekly, or monthly depending on how interested you are in buying or renting a penthouse in a specific area.

Where can I find a real estate agent to answer my questions about owning a penthouse near me?

As with most retail transactions, it helps to have a Realtor or another qualified professional property manager available to help you get answers about owning a penthouse. To do this, you can search for a realtor near you.

How can I receive email alerts for penthouses for sale near me?

You can receive email alerts by signing up for them.


So, what is a penthouse?

Penthouses are, in many ways, the ultimate symbol of luxury in real estate. All are limited in supply, so you may need to go through specialty groups to even have a chance of buying or renting. They’re also hard to find in additional cities outside metropolitan areas because the pseudo-penthouses there just aren’t quite as good.

However, for most people who can afford them, the benefits of living in penthouses significantly outweigh the negatives. Whether you’re looking to live in one or want to hire a professional property manager to deal with one as part of your rental investments, any penthouse you can buy is worth it as part of an alternative investment category.

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