What Is a Housing Unit?

Housing Units Explained

Brownstone houses in Greenwich Village, New York City

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

A housing unit is any type of residential space that acts as an independent residential space where an individual or family lives. It can be a standalone structure or one of many units within a structure.

Learn more about what constitutes a housing unit and why it matters.

Definition and Examples of a Housing Unit

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a housing unit is a residential unit that acts as separate living quarters and is either occupied or intended for occupancy. It can include a house, an apartment, a condominium, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or even a single room within a larger structure.

A housing unit is an area where an individual or family lives separately from others and has direct access to that space from a common hall or the outside of the building.

The following are not considered housing units by the Census Bureau:

  • Dormitories, bunkhouses, and barracks
  • Quarters in predominantly transient motels and hotels, unless they're occupied by an individual or family who considers the unit to be their place of residence
  • Quarters in institutions, general hospitals, and military installations, unless they're occupied by staff members or resident employees who have separate living arrangements

Types of Housing Units

As mentioned, most residential units are considered housing units if they're separate living quarters. This includes apartment and condominium complexes, duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and so on, which all contain multiple housing units. 

The Census figures reflect the number of housing units within the structure in which they are located—not the number of residential structures themselves.

In some cases, single-family homes can include more than one housing unit. For example, let's say a homeowner decides to rent out their basement to a family member or another type of tenant. As long as the two units are separate living quarters, the owner has essentially turned one housing unit into two.

What It Means for the Housing Industry

Housing units are used by the real estate industry to better understand the patterns and trends of the housing market.

For Realtors, for instance, housing-unit information can help give an idea of what local housing markets look like and how that might impact prices. Homebuilders may use this data point to assess the demand for new houses

The Census Bureau estimates the number of housing units for each state and county for every year. In 2020, the agency estimated that there were more than 140 million housing units in the U.S. In comparison, there were roughly 131.7 million housing units in 2010.

To come up with housing-unit estimates, the agency takes the number of housing numbers counted during the most recent decennial census—2010, for instance— adds in new residential construction and new mobile homes, then subtracts the number of housing units lost.

Lost units include housing units that have been moved or demolished or that have an interior that's exposed to the elements, possibly because of a natural disaster. As a shortcut, the agency uses an annual loss rate per thousand units based on the type of unit, its age, and the region it's in.

Once the Census Bureau completes its estimate, it is reviewed by the Federal-State Cooperative for Population Estimates, as well as by local jurisdictions.

Key Takeaways

  • Housing units are defined as a residential unit that acts as separate living quarters, with a few exceptions.
  • The Census Bureau estimates the number of housing units for states and counties every year.
  • Housing-unit estimates are important for the homebuilding and real estate industries to track patterns and trends.