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What Is a Villa?

From luxurious retreat to everyday low-maintenance living, a villa can be whatever you need it to be.

[Updated: Feb 04, 2021] May 26, 2020 by Liz Brumer
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If you're looking for a new home with less upkeep than a house or a luxury vacation rental, you may have come across the term villa in your research. But seeing how these properties can be defined in a wide range of ways, it may lead you to wonder, what is a villa?

Learn the historical origin of the term villa as well as the current interpretation so that you have a better understanding of what the term means in relation to your house or vacation-home search.

The history of villas

During the Roman empire, wealthy Romans often had a secondary house outside of the city on a large piece of property. These large, elegant homes were called villas and would undoubtedly be considered a mansion in today's times.

A Roman villa could be one of two designs;

  • A villa urbana, which was fairly close to the city of Rome and could be accessed within a few days. It gave the elite an escape from the city but was not necessarily capable of being a fully functioning farm estate.
  • A villa rustica, which in today’s times would be more like a country estate. These villas were farther from Rome, still offering the same feel and amenities of a villa urbana but included farmland, livestock, and, typically, slaves to tend the fields for agricultural production.

The current usage of the term villa

Today, especially in the United States, a villa more often refers to a lower- or middle-income housing arrangement where the house shares a wall with another house, similar to a townhome or condo arrangement. With this type of dwelling, you're in charge of maintaining your house but not the property surrounding it.

A villa is more similar to a townhome than a condominium because they are designed to feel like independent spaces, whereas a condo is primarily accessed via communal hallways, elevators, etc. A townhome is usually designed with a multi-story terraced look, whereas a villa is usually a single story and designed to mimic the garden spaces of historic Roman villas.

Villas as vacation homes

Villas today can still resemble historic Roman villas, serving as opulent retreats. In these cases, the term is commonly used to describe a luxurious vacation rental. These private villas are common in Tuscany and much more closely resemble the extravagant villa of the Roman times, although other regions are now using the name to describe exotic or unique holiday homes.

Most have luxury accommodations, such as a private pool, tennis court, or concierge service. The floor plans can vary but they will almost always include a master bedroom and large living area.

Villas as primary residences

A villa, condo, and townhouse are all considered independent housing. While they may have shared walls, they are separate units. These types of homes often have monthly, quarterly, or annual association fees that help pay for part of the building and complex maintenance.

A villa most often takes the appearance of a duplex or row house, but you can also find a detached villa without shared walls. It differs from a townhouse or condominium in the fact that it usually includes a private patio or garden area, reminiscent of the landscaped gardens of the ancient Roman villas. Amenities vary greatly and may include a villa community area, a pool, or a tennis court, but some may have no communal amenities at all.

Although it may initially seem confusing when trying to understand the term villa, if you put it into the context of its intended use, like a house or a rental property, it becomes much more clear. An Italian villa is a luxury accommodation to stay on your holiday vacation. A villa in the United States is an affordable house that offers you some private outdoor space without the maintenance often associated with a single-family house.

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