The Korea Herald


[Survive & Thrive] Korean ‘villas’ are not what you expect

Korean housing terminology reflects various types of inexpensive dwellings, from 'villa,' 'banjiha' to 'oktapbang'

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : April 18, 2023 - 14:15

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An introductory guide to Korea's housing would be incomplete without an explanation of the prevalence of apartment homes -- the tall, uniformly structured, multi-unit buildings that Koreans commonly refer to as “apateu."

Commonly found in urban spaces, apartment complexes often consist of a set of buildings with multiple identical or similar units per floor, equipped with modern amenities such as elevators, security systems, shared gym facilities and on-site parking.

There is another type of multi-unit building that Koreans refer to as a "villa," though villa dwellings may not align with the traditional definition of the term.

While native English speakers typically associate the word with a spacious and often luxurious rural or suburban residence, in South Korea, it means something entirely different. Villas are smaller homes in buildings usually four or five stories tall or less.

In terms of amenities, Korean villa buildings often fall short compared to apartment complexes. They typically offer less parking space, a smaller waste disposal area and limited shared facilities. Most villas don’t have building managers, either.

Ultra-luxurious villas in upscale neighborhoods exist, but Koreans generally think of villa homes as less valuable than apartments.

There are other types of homes that usually cost less than apartments, villas or one-room studios of the same size. But these often come with complications.

One such type of dwelling is the “banjiha,” which can be translated as a semi-basement unit. The term refers to basement-level homes that may have windows to the outside slightly above ground level.

A movie still of A movie still of "Parasite" depicting Park So-dam (left) and Choi Woo-sik as family members living in a semibasement, or "banjiha" residence in Seoul. (CJ ENM)

As such, this form of housing often suffers from poor ventilation, noise, vermin and plumbing problems. The scenes from Academy Award-winning film, “Parasite,” which depicts a banjiha residence being flooded and the backed-up toilet overflowing in heavy rain, are not uncommon.

The heavy rains that hit Seoul in August 2022 flooded banjiha across the southern part of the city, and several occupants drowned after becoming trapped in their homes.

Gosiwon are another type of dwelling. Often no bigger than a cubicle, they provide very basic amenities such as a bed, desk and sometimes a private bathroom. They typically cater to students or young people who require a temporary and affordable place to stay in urban areas.

Another form of cheap housing are “oktapbang,” which are extra rooms located on the rooftop of a residential building. Many of these were not designed for people to live in, and often have problems related to heating and air conditioning, which is why prospective occupants should check if the space they are looking at is prone to such issues.

Survive & Thrive is a series offering a guide to living in South Korea for those born outside of the country. – Ed.