Help Buyers Rediscover Ranch-Style Homes

Once considered less-than-special, these functional homes fit the needs of modern living.

August 1, 2004

Homes built in the mid-20th century are among the largest number of resale homes available in the country. Between 1948 and 1968, about 75 percent of the homes built in the U.S. were ranch-style, low-slung, horizontal-lined single-story, or split-level homes.

How attractive these homes are to today’s buyers depends a lot on local culture, including whether local real estate professionals appreciate ranch homes and how they are presented for sale. If the local real estate culture treats these homes as architectural treasures, sellers and homebuyers will too. Your enthusiasm as a real estate practitioner is infectious.

Designed for economy and functionality, ranch-style homes were mass-produced to serve new families after World War II. The post-war Jet Age introduced a new devil-may-care casualness and love of frontier. Families reveled in the modernity of sliding glass doors overlooking play yards, the sleekness of wall-to-wall carpet—even if it covered hardwoods—and the practicality of Formica countertops with Jetson-era geometric and starburst patterns.

But ranch-style homes also had their downsides. Very little front ornamentation, as a nod to efficiency, gave these homes less character than their traditional Tudor or Cape Cod counterparts. And their sheer numbers made them seem less-than-special, especially those homes built for the working and middle classes by mass-production builders and developers like Levitt, Fox & Jacobs and Eichler.

Modest Ranches ‘Out of Vogue’ by 80s

By the greed-is-good 1980s, the modest family-style ranch home was out of vogue, and the McMansion was born. As homes were built further from city cores, developers began to crowd two-story homes on smaller lots. Imposing facades and shared community amenities became more important to homebuyers than backyard family barbecues.

Today, as homebuyers rebel against long commutes and rediscover the inner city, they are encountering large numbers of ranch style homes for sale. The key to making ranch homes work for today's buyer is highlighting the historical significance of these properties and showing how they can fit modern-day needs.

"I think World War II was such a disruptive influence on American society that everyone felt we had entered a whole new era, and we needed new houses for a new lifestyle,” says Ken Lampton, a Dallas-based historical home expert and real estate practitioner. “The ordinary suburban homes that were built in 1948 thru 1954 were so stripped of historical references that it is clear Americans were ready for something new."

He says Americans were eager to embrace a “modernistic" design because they were inspired by the functional, unsentimental designs of modern armored tanks and jet fighter planes that helped win the war.

"Remember all the talk about the jet age during the late-1940s and early 1950s?” Lampton says. “The homes built during that time were truly jet-age homes. You don't put a propeller on a 1950 jet airplane just because airplanes had propellers back in 1930. And you don't put a high-pitched roof and a dormer on a 1950 home just because homes had high-pitched roofs and dormers back in 1650.”

Design Influenced by Autos, Prairie Style

Just as automobiles became longer and lower by the early 1950s, it seemed logical that houses should become longer and lower as well, he says. The most obvious way to widen the house was to rotate the old floor plans by 90 degrees.

Middle class homes in the 1920s were essentially two rooms wide by three or four rooms deep. But middle class homes in the early 1950s were three or four rooms wide by two rooms deep. The bedrooms tended to be grouped on one side of the house, while the living room, kitchen, and dining facilities were grouped at the other. This was thought to be very rational because it allowed all those new 1950s baby-boom infants to sleep in peace and quiet while mother was busy using her noisy new vacuum cleaner in the living room.

Housing historians also say the genesis of the ranch style influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style. Using low horizontal lines and open interior spaces, Wright revolutionized the American home at the turn of the century—the 20th century that is.

Other influences include the Spanish eclectic, which uses stucco and Mediterranean design elements to differ the design from the Western ranch home. While California builder Cliff May is known as the father of "ranch-style," it is probably Joe Eichler who is most responsible for popularizing the ranch lifestyle and sending it across the country. Eichler was a "merchant builder," and among the first to hire nationally known architects to design and build housing in large numbers for the middle class.

But it was the automobile that really kicked the design in gear; ranch-style homes were often built with attached garages.

Today, boomers and seniors are returning to the ranch-style home. These buyers prefer the convenience of one-story living, but the rambling ranch is also well suited to young families who want large play yards for kids, communal gathering areas, and privacy for sleeping.

Dual-income parents are finding the ranch home is family-friendly, too. In fact, current home design trends have an emphasis on machines (flat-panel TVs, computers) and family-gathering places like dens, just as in the 1950s.

To maximize the ranch home's appeal to modern buyers, look under old faded carpets for hardwoods that can be exposed and redone, or added. Replace rickety sliding glass doors with French doors which allow in as much light. Strip and refinish wood paneling, beamed ceilings and crown molding in lighter shades.

Most ranches have no interior load-bearing walls, so walls can easily be moved or eliminated for better flow. L-shaped ranches lend themselves well to additions. Replace small master baths with cedar closets and add on a master bath with walk-in closets and a sitting room with French doors to the yard.

New Design Ideas Translate Well to Ranch

New ideas in home design flatter the ranch-style home with lots of light and horizontal lines, which ranch style homes already have, says interior designer Kathy Adcock-Smith.

"Our lives are enriched by materials that bring light into formerly dark areas," she says. "For instance, in my mid-century home, in a set of louvered doors that separated the laundry from the kitchen, I replaced the louvers with sandblasted acrylic. The laundry now shares light from the kitchen, and when we entertain, the light in the laundry room has a pretty effect, and we are aware of an area beyond the closed door."

But to Lampton, it’s the history of the ranch that’s most appealing.

"To me, the most fascinating thing about houses is the stories they tell about the economics, social changes, and design aesthetic of the era in which they are built," he says.

(c) Copyright 2004 Realty Times. Reprinted with permission.

Blanche Evans is a writer/editor and CEO of evansEmedia. Formerly, she was a senior editor with Realty Times, where she was named by REALTOR® Magazine as one of the most influential people in the real estate industry.

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