Return of the Ranch

Widely popular in the 1950s, ranch-style homes are making a comeback among Baby Boomers, first-time buyers, and many in between. Help buyers understand the pros and cons to determine if this type of home is right for them.

June 26, 2014

Like hemlines, housing styles come and go, but no vernacular may prove this more than the American-born-and-bred ranch-style house, also referred to as a rambler in some parts of the country.

Dating back to the 1920s but associated more with housing for burgeoning suburbs after World War II, the one-level, ranch-style home is now becoming the “it” girl for a variety of reasons.

Its original appeal stemmed from being quick to build and affordable to buy as home owners gravitated to the suburbs to raise families. Though it became associated with tract housing after the planned community of Levittown was built on New York’s Long Island in the late 1940s, it also had a more highbrow connection with Frank Lloyd Wright’s earlier, low-lying, long Prairie-style homes that blended into their settings.

However, the ranch style fell from favor in more recent decades as two-story homes and mega-mansions grabbed interest. Many home buyers pooh-poohed the ranch as poor man’s housing, says Bill Golden, salesperson with RE/MAX Metro Atlanta Cityside in Atlanta, where stock is plentiful. “I can’t tell you how many clients would say to me, ‘I don’t want to look at ranch houses.’ But now, many are actively seeking them out,” he says. He says one reason for their resurgence is the nicer lots many ranch homes were built on in the ’50s and ’60s — better than earlier-period bungalows and even some more recently constructed two-story homes.

Salesperson Tuniscia Okeke with Redfin’s Baltimore office has seen a similar trend. “Ranches are becoming far more popular in my area, and their price point often offers more bang for the buck,” she says. “If need be, home owners remodel them — perhaps to gain a master suite, since some early designs didn’t have a bathroom in the master bedroom,” she says.

Here are other reasons ranch appeal is up in many parts of the country:

  • Aging boomers can stay put if they already live in a ranch, or they may search for one as they downsize if they want to avoid stairs. Boomers who are still active also find it’s a good choice if they want to bring an older family member to live with them, says Jeff Tanenbaum, salesperson with Halstead Property in New York.
  • Architect of Millbrook, N.Y., is designing several very efficient new retirement ranches. “People are looking for smaller homes where they use every room rather than waste space,” he says. He recently built a 650-square-foot ranch with 350 square feet of unheated porch space for a retired woman to live in full-time.
  • Mid-century aficionados view some ranches as an extension of that style, particularly when they have a brick facade. The best examples may also include solid hardwood floors, steel casement windows, interior brick work, and a fireplace. In fact, some savvy salespeople market ranches as mid-century homes to take advantage of the design trend’s popularity.
  • First-time buyers consider it an affordable option since many are less costly to buy than comparably sized two-story houses. Whether they’re less expensive to heat and cool depends on construction, square footage, and layout. But many with young children also like the idea of one-level living to avoid worrying about blocking stairways with child-safety gates. Furthermore, many in this generation may not have grown up in ranches, so they hold appeal as a new, novel style.
  • Contemporary-loving home owners who prefer an open-style loft plan consider the ranch a way to gain that look if they can open rooms without compromising structural support. “Because older ranches usually weren’t that large, it’s often not a big deal to reframe a span with beam or joist to carry the [open] load,” says New York-based architect Joe Eisner. The ranch is also relatively easy to add onto, at multiple locations if the site is large enough, says Peter Feinmann, whose eponymous design and build firm is based in the Boston area.
  • Nature lovers also find ranch-style houses appealing because they can be adapted with large glazed doors to fashion good flow between outdoors and indoors, says Mark Stapp, executive director of the Masters of Real Estate development program at Arizona State University and former chairman of the board at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Foundation.
  • Those who prefer the idea of a mature infrastructure that older neighborhoods provide­, such as older styles of homes, mature trees, and maybe a nearby walkable downtown with mass transit, may also find ranches a better fit than a brand-new neighborhood.

While ranches offer many pluses, there are caveats that a wise buyer should heed:

  • Older ranches generally were constructed with low 8-foot-high ceilings versus today’s more popular 9-foot-high and taller heights, says Eisner. It can be expensive to raise a roof.
  • It also can be expensive to add onto since building a foundation or slab may be pricier than constructing a second story, says architect Alexander Kolbe of EvoDomus in Cleveland.
  • They may be less energy-efficient than more compact styles, unless they don’t sprawl, says Feinmann.  
  • Some occupy small lots, though the tight property size can be a boon for those who don’t want to spend time and money on yard maintenance.
  • Some lack basements and attics, which are good for storm safety and extra storage and permit easy expansion.

In any case, Golden, a ranch fan who now lives in a 1952 design, advises buyers to avoid transforming a ranch into something it’s not. “It’s fine to replace windows and doors, open the interior, and even paint the exterior brick for a more contemporary look, but what doesn’t work is to make a ranch into something else — maybe a bungalow,” he says.

And, as with any trend, the ultimate irony may be that the stock could eventually be tougher to find, not only because more buyers are seeing its advantages, but also because the wrecking ball continues to demolish some ranches that have survived.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Flat arches are either level or have a slightly curved arch. This arch has supportive voussoirs, which are wedge-shaped stones or bricks.