Curious about the differences between British vs American houses? There are more than you’d think!
When my husband and I moved to England from the US, we went from a large Texas new construction to a small London apartment in a 150-year-old converted house.
That move taught us a lot, like how to dry clothes without a dryer and how to stop flies from getting into screenless windows.
Now, as we embark upon our journey to buy a home in the UK, we’re discovering all sorts of differences between US and UK homes.
Whether you’re moving to the UK or going the other way across the pond, here’s what you need to know about British vs American houses.
Detached homes vs semi/terraced
Sharing walls with your neighbors as a homeowner is one of the biggest differences between living in the US vs UK.
Most British houses are either semi-detached or terraced, meaning they share one or both exterior walls with adjoining properties. While developers are building more detached homes across the UK, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the existing housing stock.
There are a few reasons why American homes are overwhelmingly detached compared to British ones, but it’s mainly to do with age and space.
Many UK homes were built hundreds of years ago before the advent of cars, when it was common to live in adjoining cottages (and later townhouses) within larger communities. It’s why old American east coast cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia have neighborhoods full of brownstones and other terraced homes.
Plus, there’s the matter of space. The US is a vast country with sprawling towns and a solid network of high-speed roads. It’s no problem to live 15 miles from the nearest grocery store when you can hop in your car and drive there in 20 minutes.
In contrast, the UK is only 2.5% of the size of the US, and most of its communities were founded long before paved roads and affordable vehicles. There’s also the matter of conservation areas and protected lands that limit new builds and road construction.
Finally, while the UK is a much smaller country geographically, its population is still 20% of that of the US, which makes it 8 times more densely populated.
When Americans start house hunting in the UK, their first question is often, “why are British houses so small?”.
US homes are about 3 times bigger than UK ones, and we’ve already covered most of the reasons why in the previous discussion of detached vs. semi/terraced houses.
Space is at a premium in the UK, and with most of the housing stock being built before 1900, it just wasn’t common or practical to have a big house unless you were wealthy.
While more and more Brits are building extensions and expanding into their lofts to add American-style master bedrooms and open-plan living spaces, there’s still an obvious difference between US vs UK homes in terms of square footage.
Timber frame vs brick and stone construction
Brick and stone-built homes abound in Europe, and the UK is no exception. But in much of the US, you’ll find homes with timber frames clad in wood or vinyl siding.
That’s because historically, people built houses with the materials that were readily available. When European cities were rising up hundreds of years ago, it was easier and cheaper to access brick and stone. Many forests had long been depleted, or were protected/owned.
When new settlements and towns were being constructed in the US, however, builders had vast swathes of forest to utilize. It created a tradition of timber construction in America that exists to this day, even though wood is not nearly as abundant.
While you’ll see some new build subdivisions with brick facades in the US, the majority are still being constructed with vinyl siding over timber frames.
Washing machine location
One difference between British vs American houses that catches new arrivals off guard is the location of the washing machine.
In the UK, it’s quite common to have your washing machine in the kitchen. That’s because older homes rarely had the space or the plumbing setup to accommodate a separate utility room like you’ll find in the US.
Thanks to the advent of integrated appliances, however, you’ll rarely notice the machine–it will often be hidden behind a normal-looking kitchen cabinet.
Some British homes instead have a cabinet/closet inside or near a bathroom that houses the washer. And new builds and renovated homes will often have a separate utility room/closet. But in most cases, you’ll need to get used to washing dirty clothes where you cook your meals.
Prevalence of dryers
Speaking of laundry, another divide between UK vs US houses is the prevalence of dryers.
While nearly 80% of US households own a dryer, only about 50% of UK households have them. And these are concentrated in family homes where there’s more space (and children creating a constant stream of dirty clothes).
So how do the other 50% of UK households dry their clothes?
When it’s warm enough, you hang them outside–though you’ll need to keep an eye on the sky in case an errant rain shower undoes your work. In the colder months, Brits use foldable drying racks and even drape things over radiators (though I don’t recommend the latter).
Bathroom layouts and terminology
Wrapping your head around British vs American words for bathrooms is a bit overwhelming.
In the US, a bathroom is any room with a toilet. But in the UK, a bathroom is (understandably) a room with a bathtub and/or shower.
Then there’s the difference in terminology for toilet-only rooms. In the US, they’re generally called “half baths” or “powder rooms”. In the UK, they’re usually called “cloakrooms”, “toilets”, or sometimes a “W.C” (short for water closet), though “powder room” is starting to catch on.
While toilet-only rooms will show up on US house listings as 0.5 bathrooms (ex. a residence can be 3 bed, 2.5 bath), the UK listings don’t count toilet rooms towards the number of bathrooms.
It’s also important to note that older homes in the UK may have the toilet in a separate room next to the rest of the bathroom. Sometimes there isn’t even a sink in that room, so you’ll need to walk to the proper bathroom to wash your hands…
Another question Americans have when moving to the UK is “why are there no outlets in UK bathrooms?”.
Due to building regulations, it’s against code to have an exposed outlet within 3m of the bath. The only exception to this is a shaver point, which you’ll find near the sink of older homes. They are a relic from a time when electric shavers didn’t use rechargeable batteries.
So how are you supposed to blow dry your hair in a British bathroom? Well, hopefully you have an outlet just outside the bathroom that the cord can reach!
Some homes may have outlets inside of a bathroom cabinet, which is acceptable to code. We have such a setup in our current place, as our boiler and washing machine are both located inside a cabinet in the main bathroom (a.k.a. the “family bathroom”).
Single and double bedrooms
Bedrooms are defined differently in the US vs UK. In fact, the UK has no legal definition for what constitutes a bedroom!
In the US, the term “bedroom” is more heavily regulated and includes minimum square footage, horizontal length, and modes of egress among other things. For example, US bedrooms must measure at least 7 feet in any horizontal direction.
In the UK, bedrooms are categorized as “singles” and “doubles”.
Basically, a single bedroom is one that’s too small to accommodate a double bed. They’re typically used as nurseries, children’s rooms, or home offices. Double bedrooms have large enough dimensions to fit a double bed.
Regardless of the size, estate agents are able to call any of these rooms a bedroom in the listings. So always check the floorplan before wasting your time viewing a place!
Big, walk-in bedroom closets–or any closets at all for that matter–are a major thing Americans miss living in the UK.
In the US, a master bedroom will almost always have a substantial amount of closet space, with new builds generally boasting a walk-in closet. But in the UK, the “master” is pretty much just code for the biggest bedroom, or the one with an en-suite bathroom.
I will note that the presence of closets in the UK depends a lot on the age of the property and if it’s been renovated.
For example, older homes often have quirky layouts with narrow recesses, and some people add doors onto them to form a closet. Also, pricier homes may have built-in wardrobes that run the length of the wall.
But for the most part, Brits rely on freestanding wardrobes and dressers (or “chests of drawers” as they’re called in British English) to store their clothes.
Forced air heating vs radiators
If you’re a European walking into the average American home, you’ll notice that the walls are conspicuously free of radiators. That’s because most houses in the US are heated (and cooled) using a forced air system.
Unlike the radiant heating systems common in the UK and Europe, US homes usually contain a series of vents and ducts that push heated and cooled air into each room.
While US homes built before the 1950s may still have radiators, they were phased out in favor of forced air starting in 1935.
That being said, homes in cooler climates may have underfloor radiant heating in tiled rooms like kitchens and bathrooms. It’s a popular “luxury” upgrade for new builds and remodels.
Did you know that 90% of American homes have air conditioning? Whether it’s central A/C or an electric window unit, air conditioning is viewed as a basic necessity in nearly every part of the country.
So it’s not surprising that Americans can’t fathom how Brits live without air conditioning. But up until recently, aircon (as it’s known in the UK) just wasn’t necessary in most of the country.
Outside of northern Scotland and elevated areas like the Peak District, the UK’s climate is quite temperate. Winters are generally mild (especially given the country’s latitude), and summertime highs rarely exceed 75°F / 24°C.
On warm days, you’d simply open your windows and let the breeze naturally cool your home.
Unfortunately, climate change has brought multiple heat waves during the past few summers, with week-long stretches of 85°F / 30°C or hotter weather.
As summers continue to warm up, more Brits are buying portable air conditioners or even installing wall-mounted A/C units to battle the heat.
Mailboxes vs postbox
As someone who rarely sends mail, I didn’t give much thought to this difference between American and British homes. It took about two years of living in England before I realized why post offices are so important here!
Unlike the US, houses in the UK don’t have their own mailboxes for sending and receiving mail.
While many American homes have little boxes along the street with the side flag to indicate outgoing mail, most British homes have a mailslot built into the front door for accepting letters. Outgoing mail has to be taken to a post office or dropped in the (usually red) iconic postboxes spread across the neighborhood.
That being said, the Royal Mail system is one of my favorite things about living in England.
Insulation–or the lack thereof–has become a hot topic in the UK. Nearly 1/3 of British homes are uninsulated, and with energy prices soaring, it’s become a serious problem not just environmentally, but economically as well.
As we’ve repeatedly discussed, the UK’s housing stock is generally very old and made of brick and stone. Most homes were built long before the advent of the fluffy fiberglass insulation found in most American houses.
While newer UK homes are legally required to be insulated, and older homes can be retro-fitted with new walls and blown-in insulation, it still leaves a large part of the country with partial or no insulation at all.
Most of the differences between British vs American houses boils down to the age of the housing stock. But with window screens, it’s a bit more nuanced.
In the US, window screens took off in popularity in the late 1800s. Given that almost 90% of US homes were built after 1940, it’s no wonder they’re so ubiquitous.
But if window screens have been around for nearly 150 years, why don’t newer British homes have them? It’s a matter of both tradition and environment.
For thousands of years, UK homes were constructed to fit screenless windows. To change that practice, there would need to be a major benefit in having them.
While the UK has its share of flying insects and creepy crawlies, it doesn’t come close to the amounts in most US states. As someone who’s lived in the Midwest, East Coast, and South, I can assure you that an unscreened window is an open invitation for mosquitoes, gnats, and all sorts of annoyances.
But in my experience in the UK, flies tend to show themselves out after a few minutes, and I avoid opening the windows during the brief flying ant season.
Conservatories vs enclosed porches
Conservatories in the US are mostly reserved for fancy or historic homes. Americans are more likely to encounter a conservatory in a game of Clue than they are in real life.
In the garden-loving UK, however, conservatories are far more popular. It may also have something to do with not needing planning permission to build them and thereby increase your living space…
What you will see in some US states are enclosed porches, a.k.a. sun porches. These are areas off the front or back door of the home where you can sit or dine in the warmer months.
Enclosed porches can have walls of glass similar to a conservatory, but they’re more commonly screened in.
Garbage disposals are a very American convenience that you won’t find in the UK.
Only a very small percentage of British homes are fitted with an in-sink waste disposal. It’s mainly because food waste is less common here (in part due to more frequent grocery shopping), and many councils operate free food waste curbside collection.
It’s also because the UK’s waste water systems are much older than the US and weren’t designed to handle that much debris washing down the drain.
Building extensions vs upsizing
The UK is full of what I like to call “Frankenstein houses”. The sheer number of extended dwellings is a notable difference between British vs American homes.
As we’ve covered before, the UK housing stock is far older, smaller, and less abundant than in the US.
When you combine that with the chain system that can make closing on a house take six months or more, plus the pricey stamp duty tax on home purchases, it’s no wonder Brits find it easier to add an extension to their existing home instead of searching for a bigger place.
While Americans with older homes construct “add-ons” similar to what you see in the UK (ex. attic conversions), it’s far more common in the US to just sell your house and upsize to something bigger. There is a capital gains tax levied on money earned from the sale of a house, but most Americans are exempt from it.
Fridge and freezer size
I find it hilarious that the large French-door style fridge freezers are called “American style” in the UK. While these are becoming more popular in British households, most people have a much smaller stacked fridge freezer or even separate units.
Because British kitchens are smaller than American ones, it’s hard to fit a big fridge freezer combo. You’re more likely to find separate units integrated into the cabinetry, or a more narrow stacked version (either integrated or freestanding).
It’s rarely an issue in the UK, as we grocery shop more frequently here and don’t need to fit 1-2 weeks of food into the fridge at once.
However, as someone who likes to batch cook and make huge pots of soup, I found the small size frustrating. We ended up buying a separate larder fridge (i.e. a tall fridge without a freezer) that could accommodate all of our food and leftovers comfortably.
Fence ownership works very differently in the US vs UK, and I won’t touch on the legal aspect of determining fence ownership, appropriate location, etc. here.
I will say that in general, homeowners in the UK “own” either the left side or the right side fence that sits on the border between neighboring gardens. That means it’s your responsibility to maintain one side, whether it be replacing broken panels or re-doing leaning posts.
In the US, however, fences are often built entirely on your own property instead of along the border line. If you live in an HOA or new build community, this may not be the case–it could be similar to the UK style of fence ownership instead.
Are there any differences between American vs British houses that I missed? Let me know in the comments!