Ranch Revival

Ranch houses appeal to baby boomers and first-time buyers for many of the same reasons.

March 1, 2005

It's hard to imagine traveling anywhere across the United States without spotting a ranch house. Maybe that's because ranch homes are the single most prolific residential design in the nation.

The style was temporarily edged out of popularity with the introduction of "McMansions" in the 1980s. But today's renewed interest in ranch houses, expressed by both seniors and starter-home buyers, has transformed existing inventory into a hot commodity—and encouraged builders to offer ranch options in new developments from coast to coast.

Complex Concepts, Simple Design

America's earliest ranch dwellings appeared during the Spanish Colonial period beginning in the 1820s. Those buildings, made of adobe, were low to the ground, horizontal in feel, and practical in every sense. Once westward expansion made sawmills commonplace, board and batten techniques replaced adobe.

Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural explorations—his Prairie houses of the early 1900s and the Usonian homes of the 1930s to 1950s—fostered a residential revolution that enabled the Ranch as we know it to be born. Wright's work abandoned historical reference, simplified rooflines, and consciously opened interiors to light and view. Floor plans featured specific living zones: sleeping areas on one side, active living areas on the opposite side, with kitchen and dining room as a buffer in between.

Other architects energetically followed Wright's lead. Californian Cliff May, an enthusiastic Wright admirer, is considered the father of the Ranch house. His affordable designs stressed informality, open floor plans, and a focus on bringing the outdoors in. Where Wright strove to blur the distinction between the space within walls and the space without, May seemed to eliminate the difference altogether.

Despite the Ranch's intellectual foundation and popular reception, the style remained somewhat of a regional phenomenon until the end of World War II, when several influential factors converged. The new households established by returning soldiers triggered a housing shortage. Simultaneously, the federal government created financing opportunities so GIs could readily buy homes. Finally, the standardization of building materials and mass production techniques developed during wartime made it cheaper and faster to construct already affordable ranch house designs. The only question: where to build them?

America's love affair with the automobile placed land beyond city limits within reach, giving birth to suburbia during the 1950s. Add the country's fascination with the Jet Age and the conveniences it fostered, and ranch homes morphed into machines for living, fully equipped with every modern device.

The Appeal of Ranch

These hallmarks of the Ranch make it easy to understand the popularity of this style:

  • One story
  • Low-pitched roof: hipped, cross-gabled, or side-gabled, sometimes with deep eaves
  • Horizontal but asymmetrical arrangement, creating an informal feel
  • An integral garage
  • Rectangular, L- or U-shaped floor plan
  • Rooms frequently open to one another and to private courtyards, patios, or porches
  • Generally few decorative exterior details

Ranch homes can be clad in brick, stone, stucco, or wood siding depending on local climate, material availability, and personal preference. Exteriors also might mix materials, including vast expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass in the more elaborate schemes.

Older ranches tend to reject stylistic embellishments, except for early Spanish or Prairie influences. Sometimes shutters or simple front porches are the only embellishments you'll find on the Ranch home. Newly constructed ranches, however, can embody elements of almost any architectural style.

What's Sparking the Ranch Revival?

Driving the renewed popularity of the Ranch style is accessibility. Physically, Ranch inventory is abundant everywhere and the single-story layout makes for easy living. Financially, Ranch prices appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers.

As baby boomers approach and enter retirement, they're reviewing their residential options every bit as closely as their pension plans. Homes that can easily be navigated in good health or bad have merit, and nothing could be less complicated than a house with no stairs. What could be more economical to maintain? Practically every component of a Ranch house can be reached without a ladder, making it simpler for residents to manage and repair themselves.

Older ranches also make excellent starter homes. These homes are affordable, safe for little ones, and structurally suited to cost-effective improvements as budgets and families grow.

The more you know about the Ranch, an enduring residential player, the better you'll serve your clients and your career.

Learn More:

REALTOR® Magazine Online Architecture Guide: Ranch

Before the Architect: Ranch House Makeover

Ranch House Style by Katherine Ann Samon (Clarkson Potter, 2003)

American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home by Gerald L. Forester (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004)

American Homes: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Domestic Architecture by Lester Walker (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2002)

freelance writer

Linda Legner is a freelance writer in Burr Ridge, Ill., who covers design, engineering, construction, and real estate topics for newspapers, magazines, and businesses. She can be reached at LLwritebiz@aol.com.


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