Split-level houses are a form of ranch architecture that features three or more levels.
The placement of the various stairways is unique from house to house.
Enjoy separate living spaces in split-level homes, ideal for offices and guest areas.
For some homeowners, these layouts can be inaccessible, awkward, and hard to decorate.
Whether you grew up in an NYC suburb or in the heart of the Midwest, chances are you went to at least one friend's split-level home after school. Perhaps there was a large finished basement for doing homework, a French or sliding glass door to the back patio, or a series of half-stairways that lead to the living room, bedrooms, and bathrooms.
After over 30 years of American success, you'll find plenty of pros and cons to living in split-level homes, both in their function and overall aesthetic.
What Is a Split-Level House?
A split-level home falls within the ranch architecture family. But unlike original range-style homes of the 1930s, split-level homes added square footage both above and below the main floor. The key element to a split-level house is that it includes at least three—if not four or five—levels separated by shorter flights of steps.
Also take a moment to note that a split-level is technically different from the bi-level home. A bi-level home is also known as a raised ranch, and only features two floors.
A Brief History of the Split-Level Home
After World War II, ranches spread across the country with the rise of the American suburb. Split-level homes were particularly popular in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s because they adapted well to smaller or oddly shaped lots. If a suburb needed to fit as many homes as possible onto a plot of land, the split-level utilized space both above and below the ground.
The demand for split-level homes trickled out in the ’80s and ’90s when larger homes became more popular, but you'll still find plenty of well-preserved ranches across the country.
Key Features of a Split-Level
While all split-level homes include a series of staircases to upper and lower levels, the placement of the stairs varies. You may be able to see the lower and upper areas from the front door—like the “Brady Bunch” house—or the stairs may split your path up and down as soon as you walk in the door. Another layout features stairs in the back of the first floor that lead in either direction.
Split-level homes, overall, feature:
Three to five levels
Asymmetrical exteriors and interior layouts
Open floor plans
A lower level half below the ground
Ample storage space
A sliding door to a patio or yard
Simple decor and minimal ornamentation
Pros of Living in a Split-Level House
As families spend more time at home for both rest and work, the flexibility of a split-level home is catching the eye of new homeowners once again. Here are some perks to the mid-century style.
1. Distinct Living Spaces
Open floor plans on two distinct levels provide more opportunities for the modern family. Multi-generational families in one home can live on the base and second level independently. Bedrooms on each floor can also separate parents and kids, offering quiet and privacy.
2. Maximized Footprint
As we noted above, split-level homes did a lot with a little. If you live on a sharply sloped property, a split-level adds square footage without the cost of leveling the yard first. Split-level homes also tend to include more storage solutions, including attics, crawlspaces, and direct access to the garage.
3. Versatile Design
A flexible, open floor plan on each level means there are more opportunities to designate rooms for unique purposes. Separate lower levels create quiet work-from-home offices, guest living areas, or even rental apartments. Main levels are more versatile for large dining areas, breakfast nooks, or reading areas.
4. Modern Building Materials
Since split-level homes mainly sprung up in the second half of the 20th century, you'll find simpler structures and building materials compared to owning a historic home. Most facades feature brick, stone, or wood lap, and include straightforward decor such as Colonial columns and sconces. If you need to make renovations to your split-level, it is surely less complicated than renovating a two-century-old house.
Cons of Living in a Split-Level House
There's no question that split-level homes are not the most glamorous choice of the 21st century, even if they are slowly growing in popularity with the housing boom. Their unorthodox layout, however, is not ideal for everyone.
1. Accessibility Issues
Even if the levels are shorter than other homes, more frequent transitions can be tricky for young children, older adults, or anyone with mobility challenges. And while separate spaces are ideal for privacy, they can make caring for kids more complicated if you need to head to another wing of the house.
2. Small Foyer
Some of the most common split-level homes include a very small entranceway with a small staircase leading in a few directions. This layout can cause traffic jams for guests or large groups of kids taking off their shoes. You may also have more trouble decorating the entranceway and setting the tone for the rest of the house.
3. Confusing Flow
Speaking of odd entranceways, there is something to be said for a traditional layout. Guests will typically be able to find the living room, kitchen, and dining room on the first floor of a traditional colonial home. When they enter a split-level house, however, it leaves them wondering which way is which.
4. Tricky to Redesign
While there are many ways to switch up the unique levels of these homes, it's hard to renovate the structure of the house itself. With so many levels inside, adding an addition to either side of the house can be more complicated. And since a garage typically takes up one side of the house, you end up with less natural light and less flexibility to alter that side of the home.
Despite split-level homes having a more "dated" energy than some recent in-vogue home styles, they're bound to come back around simply for their use of space. Consider working with a local interior designer if you want to overhaul your split-level home with the help of a professional eye.