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What is a Villa?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term “villa” is used to refer to a variety of structures. The meaning is usually clear from the context, and many senses of the word are generally meant to imply luxury and occupancy by the upper or middle classes. Because of the dilution of the meaning of this word, it can sometimes be confusing when someone talks about a “villa,” especially if he or she is from a region of the world where the term may be used differently.

The original villas were country estates built by the Romans. A Roman villa consisted of a large central building with amenities like hot water, surrounded by outbuildings including stables, storage warehouses, wine pressing facilities, and so forth. The structures were surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens and working farmlands, and managed primarily by servants. Some Roman villas were close to urban areas, allowing for a quick visit, while others were more remote, and used primarily as leisure homes in the hot summer months.

One of the key characteristics of Roman villas is that they were designed to be self sufficient, which proved to be very valuable when the Roman Empire began to collapse. Some villas were looted and destroyed, but others supported small communities that turned them into fortified settlements to defend themselves from invaders. Very few extant examples of villas from the Roman period still exist, but numerous archaeological expeditions have uncovered traces of them, along with information about how the Romans lived.

The European obsession with the Roman Empire as the peak of civilization led to a villa mania in the Renaissance, when many wealthy Europeans began building replicas of Roman villas. These villas also took the form of country estates, with more of a focus on leisure than self-sufficiency. The homes often had Roman or Italianate influences, and they were also surrounded by elaborate gardens and leisurely diversions, such as stables.

The sense of “villa” as a country estate is still common in many regions of the world. However, in the late 1800s, the term also came to be used to describe suburban homes on landscaped plots. These villas lacked the large grounds of country villas, although many of them were quite pretentious. Over time, the usage of the word came to be more and more corrupted, with semi-detached homes and much simpler homes being considered “villas,” along with more expansive luxury homes such as the vacation villas which line the coastlines of warm climates.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By CaithnessCC — On Jun 14, 2011

@lonelygod - For a long time I associated this term with vacations, as we often rented a holiday villa in Europe when I was a child.

Being from a military family I've had the chance to experience several cultures, and your comment about Asia brought back many memories of living there with my father, and later as an English teacher.

As an adult I actually lived in a villa in South Korea, which was rather like a walk up, with five storeys being the maximum height allowed. As anything taller than this required an elevator you can guess that few had one!

I used to find it strange that living in an apartment there, (known as a 'mansion' - another word that can cause some communication issues), was something most people chose to do. It wasn't unusual for people to sell up their house and move from the rural areas to a small place in the city!

Perhaps that is related to the desire to be amongst the crowd? It is definitely a long way from the way Romans saw such property.

By poppyseed — On Jun 13, 2011

As I was reading the article, I couldn’t help but compare the concept of a villa to the concept that plantation estates had in the South before the Civil War.

They were also largely self-sufficient and were almost completely manned by servants.

If anyone has ever been to see a historical plantation (I’ve seen several, as I’m from the South) you know that they almost always have stables, huge gardens (both vegetable and ornamental), orchards, slave quarters, and everything that would have been necessary for a whole community of folks to survive during that time.

I found it to be a quite interesting observation that Rome's private villas were so similar.

By tlcJPC — On Jun 13, 2011

I was recently looking at vacation rentals in the mountains of NC and found several listings for ‘villas.’ I guess that I was thinking they were more like a condo sort of structure than what is described here and quickly moved on.

Wow, we were thinking a log cabin or a small cottage with a nice garden and view. Maybe we ought to rethink all of that and go with one of the villas rentals, after all.

Who doesn’t like luxurious grounds and a little pretension in their vacation? Not me, folks! I love it (especially if it comes at the same price as a condo or cabin!)

By chivebasil — On Jun 13, 2011

@summing - They are less common than one bedroom apartments, but yes, these houses do come up for rent.

It depends a lot on where you are looking to rent. In some areas of the world it is easy to find a rental house like this and you have a lot to choose from. In other places it could take months and you might have to settle on a place that you don't completely love.

If you are serious about looking, do a little internet research. There are sites dedicated to houses on the upper edge of the rental market. Typically these listing are not included in more broad ranging real estate listings.

By summing — On Jun 13, 2011

Does anyone know if their are luxury villa rentals? Do houses this nice ever show up on the rental market?

By tigers88 — On Jun 13, 2011

Whenever I hear the word villa I think immediately to some of those 19th century novels I had to read in school. It seems like they talked about villas, or retired to villas, or gazed upon villas in almost every other scene. You would think that there were villas everywhere like billboards, or that everyone had some pathological obsession with large houses.

By whiteplane — On Jun 13, 2011

@MrSmirnov - Wow, sounds like I need to cash out my savings and head down to Central America. It is amazing how much real estate prices can fluctuate according to geography.

I have seen these sort of villas as compounds before. Its my understanding that they are pretty common in Africa as well. It is a strange idea, as appealing as it is odd. It is kind of like having your own gated village where you have everything you need at hand. I wonder if it would feel private or isolated?

By backdraft — On Jun 13, 2011

I once had the privileged of staying on a villa in Northern Scotland. The residents called it an estate, but I think it falls under the definition of a villa as well. It certainly seemed to live up to the definition. The place was absolutely huge with more rooms than probably anyone had ever bother to count.

The property sat on a beautifully manicured piece of land surrounded by dense woods and rolling hills. It had clearly been chosen for its natural beauty.

While I was there I got to live like a king. They had a cook who made delicious meals 3 times a day and a liquor cabinet that had libations from around the world. Every night we would have a roaring fire in a huge fireplace. It was really an incredible experience, one that I will probably never be lucky enough to repeat.

By MrSmirnov — On Jun 13, 2011

If you are looking to buy a vacation property in Central America the properties there advertised as villas are generally gated compounds that offer extra security for the home. There is usually the central housing for the family, and often things like a pool house and housing for live in help are on the property.

Depending on the area you may also have things like a guardhouse and garages for vehicles.

What is interesting about villas in Central America is their affordability. Often you can buy one for the price of a starter home in North America, or sometimes even cheaper.

By lonelygod — On Jun 13, 2011

If you ever have a chance to travel in Asia they often use the word villa to describe stand alone houses. They are for the most part, modest, but do still cost significantly more than other housing options like apartments.

Often these villas are rare and when they do come on the market they are snatched up quickly.

In countries such as South Korea, there is a huge premium on space and having your own yard is a novelty. Interestingly enough many Koreans, even affluent ones, prefer to live in modern high rises in the capital city, verses owning true homes on the outskirts of the area.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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