Split-Level Homes: Outdated or Underrated?

They often get a bad rap, but split-level homes have many perks buyers will appreciate, starting with affordability.

Back in the 1950s and ‘60s—when the USSR’s launch of Sputnik made outer space the new frontier, and the Beatles were transforming rock and roll music—the split-level home began to emerge on the American suburban landscape.

At the time, the style appealed to a wide swath of buyers because it was a fresh design and it was grander than the modest bungalows that dominated many neighborhoods, yet could be affordably built on smaller lots than a sprawling ranch.

The design is no longer considered modern, but it is still practical for many of today’s buyers. Here’s a look at how the split-level came to be, and why it still deserves respect.

How It Evolved

The split-level design is believed to have derived from the ranch, which, in turn, was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s low-profile, horizontal Prairie homes and no-frills Usonian houses. The split levels divided public and private spaces through short half levels.

“The split originally was a way to build on a sloping site, but the interior visual connections it created were so popular it became a part of a new style,” says architect Stuart Cohen of Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects in Evanston, Ill., and co-author of Great Houses of Chicago: 1871-1921 (Acanthus Press, 2008).

With more families moving to the suburbs after World War II, many wanted a house that was a bit grander than the modest bungalows veterans purchased with G.I. Bill funds.

Split-levels looked more substantial yet their quasi-stacked designs were still compact and could be affordably built on smaller lots. Their tri-level layout contained a lower-level family room and garage, mid-level entry and public rooms, and upper-level bedrooms and bathrooms.

Popularity Peaks in the '70s

The design gained a bigger following after the TV sitcom, The Brady Bunch, debuted in 1969. America saw how a split-level house worked well for Mike and Carol Brady’s large blended family with six children, and housekeeper Alice. The exterior of the Brady’s home was modeled on one built in 1959 by Luther and Louise Carson in San Fernando Valley, Calif., according to David Brady’s Web site.

In many communities, entire subdivisions were constructed in the 1960s with split-levels and “ramblers”—ranches with a basement, says Brett West, a salesman with McEnearney Associates in Washington, D.C.

“Many of these homes have survived and are affordable,” West says in his blog, noting that split-levels in College Park, Md., can be found for between $375,000 and $450,000, versus Colonial-style houses of the same size and condition for between $450,000 and $550,000.  

Why Home Owners Like Their Splits

People who have owned split-levels are probably the best ones to describe why they find them desirable.

Take Debbie and Peter Geiger, for example. The couple says affordability was one of the main draws of their 1958 split-level home in Massapequa, on New York’s Long Island. But the home, which they owned for more than a decade before relocating a year ago, also offered a spacious feel, with a cathedral ceiling in the living room and a den and bath on the mid-level. “It was known as a ‘Cadillac split,’” says Debbie.

Other owners cite the casual, open layout as the biggest perk. Despite some initial reservations about the style, Brenda Nixon says she has grown to love her 1970s four-level split near Columbus, Ohio.

“I never thought I’d live in one, and I didn’t like them, but now we’ve had this house for eight years, and I really like how compact it is,” Nixon says. Upper-level bedrooms and bathrooms and lower-level family room and garage are just short flights away. 

The lower level of most splits was usually built partly or fully above ground to take advantage of natural light. Variations emerged, with a basement sometimes included on an even lower level and an attic above bedrooms, says broker Elsie Pecorin, GRI, with Weichert Capital Properties & Estates in Greenwich, Conn.

The Drawbacks

As houses grew grander in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond, the modest split, often with 8-foot-high ceilings and small closets, lost cachet. Today, it’s a design rarely requested by home owners, says Cohen.

“I’ve never had a buyer say, ‘please, show me a split,’” says Joe Russo, a broker with Docks Only Real Estate in Lake Norman/Charlotte, N.C., and author of the self-published book, Selling Your House/Condo in This Housing Emergency of 2008.

Pecorin, who has lived in two split levels, says she doesn’t think the style was ever considered trendy. So if buyers are looking for a state-of-the art home with lots of architectural character, they may have to skip the splits.

Small windows, a shallow-pitched roofline, and an “unsexy” exterior profile—sheathed in wood, brick, stone, or a combination—doesn’t do much for curb appeal, says Beth DeBaker, project manager with Orren Pickell Designers & Builders in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Some home owners, such as the Geigers, also didn’t like constantly going up and down stairs, even if they were short flights. The proximity of the levels and rooms also meant minimal acoustical privacy. “Noise transferred easily,” Cohen says.

Tips for Selling a Split-Level

Yet, for all of the drawbacks, split-levels can sell well if they’re listed at the right price and shown in the right condition. As with any home, you can get the best response from buyers if sellers update appliances, wiring, plumbing, and paint, says West.

When marketing the home, Pecorin says it’s smart to emphasize the split’s open floor plan, which many younger home owners like because it’s great for entertaining. The Lower level can be easily fixed up as a as an in-law suite or teenage hang-out, says West.

Home owners with young children also like the arrangement of clustered bedrooms.

But in today’s tough economy, the affordable price tag is perhaps the biggest lure. In Pecorin’s Greenwich, Conn., community where prices average $2.3 million, a split was recently on the market for $649,000.

Remodeling Potential

Split-levels make great candidates for remodeling, too. If buyers are interested in revamping their home, Pecorin suggests adding a gracious entry with columns and peaked roof over the front door.

DeBaker says her firm has given exteriors a new look with cedar siding and larger windows. As always, buyers should first perform a cost-benefit analysis. “Put together a budget to see if these are worthwhile investments, which depends on a street’s other houses, if teardowns are starting, and how long home owners plan to stay,” she says.

Cohen agrees that remodeling can make a big impact, but he warns against changing a split-level so much that it no longer resembles its original persona. “We don’t recommend turning them into English cottages, French chateaux, or anything they’re not,” he says.

That’s just what practical TV architect and dad Mike Brady probably would have advised.