Other than charming, of course.
Birmingham Cape-Cod Style Cottage Makeover
Credit: Laurey W. Glenn

If I asked you close your eyes and imagine a cottage, what would you picture? Would it be a cozy wood-sided house in a beach town, or a quaint thatched-roof home in the English countryside, or maybe a Tudor-style house straight out of a fairytale? As it turns out, none of those images is technically wrong, even though those houses are quite different. The word "cottage" has been around for a long time, and thanks to its usage by different cultures and communities, it's come to describe a category of house, not one specific architectural style. No matter what, the one thing cottages have in common is that they're smaller homes with lots of charm (inside and out).

The term "cottage" and the house it's most closely associated with originated in England during the Middle Ages. Peasant farmers were known as "cotters," and their modest, rural homes came to be called cottages. Even today, a cottage-style house in the U.K. has basically the same description it did hundreds of years ago—the homes are simple dwellings meant to fight off the cold, typically with one large living room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, under a thatched roof. Picture the cozy country home Cameron Diaz's character in The Holiday stays in—that's a quintessential English cottage.

In the United States, the concept of a cottage evolved somewhat and eventually came to describe either a small-frame vacation home near the beach or a lake, or a secondary, smaller dwelling on a property meant for guests or laborers. That doesn't mean, however, that you will only find cottages at the beach or on rural estates.

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One common cottage-style house that originated in the northeast is the Cape Cod. Modeled after those same English cottages that withstood bleak winters, Cape Cod houses fit all the characteristics of a cottage: They're small and compact (typically one-and-a-half stories with dormer windows under a steeply pitched roof), adding to the cozy factor, and also happen to be at the beach. Plus, you can't forget that irresistibly charming curb appeal. Obviously, Cape Cod-style houses are found all over the United States now, and it would certainly be accurate to describe them as cottages, even if they're in a more suburban setting.

In the South, our cottages tend to be a bit breezier, with an emphasis on outdoor living, thanks to the temperate weather. New Orleans has an entire subsection of homes called Creole cottages, which are narrow, one-story homes with a porch spanning the front of the house, and a side-gabled roof sloping down over it. In the Lowcountry, quaint cottages of a similar style dot the coastline with farmhouse-meets-coastal charm, perfect for a short stay—or a permanent one.