Put the Cool Back in Ranch-Style Homes

This common, one-story house with a low profile has a distinguished American pedigree. Yet, for decades it’s been overshadowed. As the ranch again attracts attention, learn about its best features and how older, dated examples can become strikingly modern.

Cliff May, considered the father of the ranch house, drew his inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style and Usonian homes, as well as later Arts & Crafts designs. May designed and built these ranch homes in Southern California from the 1930s on with a goal to develop a prototype that would suit home owners in a warm climate who favored informal living and easy outdoor access.

After the Second World War, developers borrowed May’s concept to construct small variations quickly and affordably and meet growing housing demand. Some ranch-style homes were cranked out, cookie-cutter-style, in large tract developments such as Levittown on New York’s Long Island. Yet at the same time, other iterations grew into more sophisticated “California Modern” designs in the hands of developers such as Joseph Eichler, who had lived in a Wright home.

Hot, Then Not

In more recent times, the popularity of ranches has waxed and waned, depending on typical homebuying criteria: location, condition, and price. In Southern California, they remain a favorite that can command top dollar, especially if they’re near the ocean and good schools, says Kelly Morgan, sales associate with Troop Real Estate in Westlake Village, Calif. “A single-story in Thousand Oaks, closer to water, will bring a higher price than in Santa Clarita,” she says.

Back East, they remain popular on New York’s Staten Island because they’re among the more affordable options and offer relatively open plans as opposed to Colonial- and Victorian-style layouts, says broker-owner Holly Wiesner Olivieri of Holly’s Staten Island Buzz. She and her husband bought a ranch 17 years ago for its private cul-de-sac location, proximity by ferry to Manhattan, and handyman-special price. In other parts of the Northeast and Midwest, ranches can be a tougher sell, as more home owners typically prefer a two-story Colonial or Cape, says Connecticut architect Duo Dickinson.

Who’s Buying Now?

Overall, the greatest interest nationwide is coming from two demographics:

  • Young couples find them an affordable entry-level option that they see remodeled and decorated often, thanks to HGTV shows and hipster home magazines. “It’s the style that appeals to the young ‘hip’ L.A. buyer who’s interested in simplicity,” says Kate Guinzburg, a partner at Deasy/Penner and Partners, a Los Angeles real estate firm that specializes in mid-century modern and other styles of homes. And in certain markets like Austin, Texas, it’s a style that’s prevalent in neighborhoods that are close to downtown, which appeals to a young professional segment of buyers who want to avoid long commutes as their city gets more congested, says Austin-based builder Dominique Levesque of Another Great House.
  • The second big cohort is baby boomers looking to downsize to one level and gain more maintenance-free living but remain in a single-family home environment. Craig McMahon, whose eponymous firm is in San Antonio, Texas., says boomers might also be inclined to choose a ranch when looking for a second home.

To take advantage of this ranch revival, share with clients how these homes can both be livable and convey mid-century cool:

Give it the right name.

Ranches share many similar features — a single story with low-pitched gabled roof, for example. But that doesn’t mean that one moniker works everywhere. In some areas, the term “ranch” won’t raise red flags. But Chicago architect Stuart Cohen of Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects thinks that for some buyers, it has a negative connotation in the same way “tract” housing does. “‘Mid-century modern’ is a better term since it connotes a classic collectible,” he says.

In parts of the West, “ranch” implies that it’s a home where horses can be stabled, says Morgan, whose ranch-seeking buyers typically want land for a barn and sometimes a pool. That’s why she prefers to call ranch-style homes “single-story.” Other terms you might hear are “American ranch,” “rambler,” and “rancher.” “Split-” and “bi-level” connote ranches with an extra half-level.

Play up its manageable, affordable size.

Averages vary, but generally these homes are under 2,000 square feet, and some are less than 1,000 square feet. Rooms are usually small by modern building standards. Most were built with three bedrooms and two full bathrooms, though this also varies, says Levesque. The small footprint, along with a typically small lot, works well for those interested in keeping down costs, maintenance, and taxes.

Highlight the open layout.

Most feature a small center hallway that separates living quarters from bedrooms; the living area often consists of an L- or U-shaped living-dining room with a small, separate kitchen, says Dickinson. While not as open as many of today’s informal loft-style plans, ranches offer more openness than other older traditional homes do. That arrangement works especially well for young families who want to keep a close eye on children, says Guinzburg.

Share how to improve profile and layout.

Because of the style’s simple form, roofline, and construction method, ranch homes’ low ceilings can be raised and vaulted to 10 to 12 feet or higher. A second story can be added and interior walls can be removed, says architect Jeff DeGraw of DeGraw and DeHaan in Middletown, N.Y. By replacing the genre’s small windows with bigger panes, the home can also look larger. In fact, new windows are often a good investment here, since the originals weren’t usually the most energy-efficient, DeGraw says. On Staten Island, most ranches were built with a basement, so Olivieri often hires an architect to draw a simple floor plan to show how an unfinished lower-level space can be transformed.

Explain how to modernize while respecting the facade.

The exteriors of ranch homes can easily be updated with paint or new siding materials. But the goal should be to respect the home’s roots and not turn it into a totally different animal, says DeGraw. “Keep it simple, with the same proportions and trim, so it still reads as a mid-century modern house rather than a New England–style Colonial with shutters,” he says. Levesque follows a similar mantra and also makes changes that fit the house into its site and neighborhood. Due to its small footprint and one-story design, adding on can be relatively easy if funds and the site, setbacks, and septic system permit, says Cohen. The key is to do so with similar proportions so what’s new fits with the original, he says. Levesque stresses the importance of respecting the site and existing trees.

Channel the modernist spirit.

To attract buyers who find it hard to visualize furnishing a ranch, consider staging with mid-century modern pieces. Reproductions are readily available online at sites such as Allmodern.com and Retrofurnish.com. Los Angeles designer Kimba Hills, owner of Rumba, a mid-century modern design store, also advises installing modern light fixtures and cabinet hardware, painting backgrounds white, and adding a skylight if the house is dark. “So many buyers want what’s modern, yet they also want something with character and a hint of nostalgia,” McMahon says.

When all’s said and done, the ranch provides a cool way to live for another generation. Ultimately, Dickinson says, “It’s more about the living that goes on within.”

Three Families and Their Ranches

There’s no single reason buyers seek out a ranch home, nor is there one simple solution to the search for the perfect one. But these case studies can give you a glimpse into the process:

1. A young couple, Chrissy Saari and Dave Leonard, clients of architect Duo Dickinson, bought a 1,800-square-foot ranch house in Connecticut. Though they wanted to tackle a lot of the work on their own to keep the price down, they hired Dickinson to add new soaring windows and “edgy” building materials to distinguish surfaces. “We probably overimproved it, but love living in a small, designed environment where we can stay through our children’s school years,” Saari says.

2. Another young couple, clients of DeGraw, opted for a ranch for similar reasons, but only after a bid to enlarge their 1,300-square-foot, 1920s Craftsman-style house came in too high. “Our house had a lot of character, but one of our daughters’ bedrooms was more like a closet,” says home owner M.J. Wieland. She and her husband instead found a larger-than-usual 2,300-square-foot ranch. “I never pictured myself in a ranch, but we were excited to do the remodeling to get new windows and an open-plan kitchen/dining/living area, thanks to Jeff and our contractor, Built Tough Construction,” she says.

3. Boomer clients of DeGraw, Edward and Deborah Sattler, moved from an Arts & Crafts–inspired, two-story home to a smaller 1971 ranch. The move allowed them to remain in their same Hudson Valley, N.Y., community while relocating closer into the center, decreasing their footprint and need to drive. “We knew that it would be in demand since most of our village’s housing stock is 100 years old and two stories. This is what others who are boomers want,” Edward says. “We were ahead of the curve,” says Deborah. They enlarged and updated the kitchen by eliminating an adjacent den and improved the mud and laundry room. They also added a new furnace, insulation, and bigger, more energy-efficient windows (by lowering existing sills). The move also increased their cash flow by $1,000 a month, they say.