These Are the Four Key Differences Between a Family Room and a Living Room

Hint: It's about more than where you hang the television.

Every room in your home serves a distinct purpose. The living room and family room are two phrases for areas in your house that are often used interchangeably, but the truth is they each mean something different and should connote a specific space. If you're wondering what the difference is between a living room versus a family room, it's important to first consider the history of these spaces. Before the mid-1900s, homes had a just one all-purpose living space where kids played during the day and adults sipped cocktails in the evening. But after World War II, many home planners added a second living area, as baby boomers started their families and moved to the suburbs. "The latter afforded the opportunity for larger homes to have a separate formal living room and the more casual family room," says Philadelphia-based interior designer Glenna Stone. "Once televisions became a fixture in almost every home, it cemented the idea of having the family room as the hub."

Now, homeowners are more focused than ever before on maximizing every square foot of their living spaces, which means your living room might be used for everyday family time and your family room might be used regularly for entertaining. In order to help each space reach its full (and intended potential), it's important to understand how they're meant to be different.

mother and two daughters dancing living room
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Where is the room located?

There's no official rule regarding where your family room or living room should be located within the home, but if you pay attention to the neighboring spaces and exterior access points, you'll get a sense of how the architect intended the floor plan to flow. "Most of the time, the family room is adjacent to or connected to the kitchen," says Stone. "It becomes an extension of that traditional 'heart of the home' and is the location for your day-to-day living." A room that's near the front entry and that connects to a formal dining area is often intended as a living room. "The living room is usually distinctly separate from the kitchen where it's a bit quieter, and when in the front of the home, it makes a first impression when you have guests," Stone adds.

How do you use it most often?

In many homes with dual living spaces, the obvious answer to the family-room-or-living-room debate is determined with one question: Where did you hang your television? "The family room is where you can relax, and it definitely tends to be the TV room," says Stone. "Kids can watch a program while you put dinner together, or you can use this space to host more informally. For instance, when you host Thanksgiving for 20, your guests will probably hang out here to watch football. It's really the 'get comfortable and settle in at home' room."

While the living room has long been thought of as a more formal, grown-up space, increasing numbers of families choose to make it part of their everyday lives. "When houses and apartments costs as much as they do, the formal living space which may get used a few times a year at best is the first luxury to go," says Boston-based architect Catherine Truman. Stone has seen the same trend with her clients: "I never think it should be only used for special occasions," she says. "Especially over the past year, people want to use every inch of their homes. The living room is a great space for adult get-togethers, socializing, and game nights, and should be welcoming and warm but still have an elevated vibe."

How did you lay out the seating?

Most family rooms have seating arrangements designed for your weekend movie night—or for keeping an eye on your Daniel Tiger-watching toddler while you work. "The TV is going to be the focal point in 99 percent of family rooms, so seating will reflect that," says Stone. "If you're a big sports family or love movie nights, a comfortable sectional will fit your family room perfectly. For this room, we really want to create a day-in, day-out space where clients feel truly at home." In the living room, the seating arrangement might include a reading chair by your favorite window, sofas arranged to encourage conversation or flexible benches for cocktails and card games. "That's my favorite part about designing living rooms," says Stone, "We're able to create these very unique spaces without the constraint of asking, 'Can everyone see the TV?'"

What's the overall aesthetic?

While the design of both rooms should be cohesive—and should tie into the décor seen throughout the rest of your home—the living room generally becomes a home for older or more tailored pieces: your grandparents' piano, the kids' school portraits, an antique desk. "Fancier furniture, inherited things, more formal things, are often in the living room, where overstuffed, casual furniture is the family room," says Truman. Part of that comes from the living room's location by the main entry, says Stone. "The living room is that first impression space, so we design that to feel more polished; not stiff or stuffy, but with a focus on refined silhouettes, sophisticated fabrics and finishes, and unique art or décor elements," she explains.

Kid- (and pet-) friendly fabrics, storage pieces designed to hide Legos and dress-up clothes, and stain-resistant carpet are essential in family rooms for homes with little ones. "You know those old stories about the families that never used the living room and covered the furniture in plastic?" says Truman. "No one ever jokes about the family room furniture being covered in plastic. More likely is to joke that the family room furniture is covered in dog hair and food stains!"

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