If you’ve ever watched some of the most beloved sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s, you’ve seen a ranch home. “The Golden Girls,” “The Wonder Years,” and perhaps most notably, “The Brady Bunch.” Surely you remember the scenes of the Brady family’s orange and avocado open-concept kitchen with housekeeper Alice serving afternoon snacks and comedic life advice to a bunch of kids. It was an inviting family setting, but what exactly is a ranch house?
Nearly a century after they made their first appearance, ranch homes are still popular. In fact, in 2019, “ranch style house” was one of the most frequently searched home types in the U.S.
We looked into the history of ranch homes, studied different styles, perks and challenges, and talked to top real estate agent Shirley Grindel with Shirley’s Real Estate Group in Washington to find out everything you need to know about vintage television’s favorite home!
A ranch house by any other name
You may know ranch house by one of its other names: rancher (which makes sense) or rambler (because they sort of sprawl or ramble across the countryside). No matter what you call it, this home has a simple charm that’s undeniable. There are several styles of ranch homes that were built as they transitioned through popularity in different areas of the country.
History of ranch houses
Residential ranch houses first began appearing in the 1920s. Master architect Cliff May is known as the father of the modern ranch house even though he didn’t design HIS first house for another decade. Though he didn’t have formal architectural training, he learned his craft on the job and found inspiration in his detailed knowledge of the San Diego region’s Spanish colonial architectural heritage. Essentially, he based the design style on homes found on Southwestern ranches.
First ranch-style residences
In the 1930s, May designed the first ranch-style residences in San Diego. These homes reflected traditional adobe hacienda architecture, with white stucco walls and red clay tile roofs with wood accents, courtyards, and archways. They also featured designs like those found on homes on Southwestern ranches, which were sprawling estates meant to blend in with the countryside but utilized modern materials and construction techniques, like using brick and stone exteriors.
At the time, May’s design was a radical change because it eliminated the steep roofs, porticoes, tables, dormer windows, and front porches that were common for the time. This shift showed that people were moving away from seeing the home as a formal status symbol and recognizing it as a gathering place. Multi-use rooms replaced the separation of formal entertaining spaces with casual living spaces and brought them together.
Height of popularity
Ranch homes became infinitely more popular with the post-war middle class of the 1940s. In fact, they were so popular that by the 1950s, nine out of 10 homes built were ranch style homes. As people began moving into the suburbs after World War II, suburban ranch homes are where the American Dream come to life. Returning soldiers wanted to move out of their city apartments, own their own land, and build a different, more suburban life for their families and the ease of construction and customizability made ranch homes an incredibly popular option. Because of the war, homebuilding products were scarce, so the suburban ranch was also the first time that companies started mass producing homes using tract, or mass produced, materials — meaning they could be more easily and quickly constructed.
Interestingly, even though the homes are quite young comparatively, any ranch home built before 1964 is considered historic.
By the 1970s, the popularity of the ranch style home was beginning to fade. Land was getting more costly and the energy crisis was causing utility prices to rise. The next generation of homeowners was growing more interested in larger homes with more modern designs, nothing like their parents’ homes.
The 1990s brought a revival of interest in the rancher that continues today. Young buyers are drawn to them because they can be more affordable in a difficult market, and downsizing older buyers like them because the single-story living makes for easier home navigation as they age. Most neighborhoods featuring ranch houses are well-established and often feature larger lots and mature, full-grown trees uncommon in new construction developments. Because these homes were built between 1940 and 1970, most have been nicely modernized and upgraded.
What is a ranch home?
You can think of ranch homes as an extension of bungalow homes, which were popular from 1905-1930. Bungalows are small or one- or one-and-a-half story homes that have quaint front porches with overhanging roofs with visible beams and rafters. Because they were small and relatively inexpensive, bungalows offered the first chance at homeownership for many working-class families.
A ranch house did the same, but with about 1,000 square feet more of space.
A traditional ranch home is a single-story house with a long, low-pitched, extended eave roof and a mix of exterior materials — usually stucco, wood, brick, or stone. They feature an open-concept living space that may have post and beam ceilings, sliding glass doors, picture windows, centrally located fireplaces, large kitchen islands, and patios. All of these features are ideal for bringing people together — whether you’re entertaining friends or enjoying family time by the fire. The size of the home depends largely on when it was built, but the earliest ranch homes typically had three bedrooms, one bathroom. and averaged around 1,300 square feet. Now, they size around 1,900 square feet.
These homes are found across the country, but having originated in San Diego, they are especially popular in the Southwest and less common on the East Coast.
Though most ranch homes share common features, there are several types of ranch homes of which to be aware.
California has a rich landscape and these homes were sprawling and seamlessly blended into that. The California ranch has an L- or U- shape design with a middle courtyard borrowed from the Arts and Crafts movement. It often utilizes Spanish Colonial architecture, including flat roofs and local materials. This style promotes an easy transition between indoor and outdoor space and provides more light throughout the house.
These homes are built on concrete slabs, which is a fairly common house foundation because it requires the least amount of lot prep to begin construction. It uses tract material and incorporates attached garages. Suburban ranch homes utilize a lot of the same features as the California Ranch such as the use of low-to-the-ground framework and courtyards, but are smaller and more simply designed without the red clay tile roofs and stucco siding.
The split-level ranch is the type of ranch home the Bradys lived in. They look like your standard ranch from the outside, but inside they feature multiple — usually three or four — split levels of living. On the main level, the front door leads to the living area, dining room and kitchen. Short flights of stairs will lead you up to the bedrooms or down to a den or basement and garage.
With only two levels, raised ranches are what are commonly identified today as split-foyer homes, where upon entering the foyer through the front door, you must go upstairs to the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms, or downstairs to the den, garage, and storage areas. Oftentimes, these homes could be built into a hill and have as much as half a level below the ground.
Also called Cinderella ranches, the storybook ranch is the most modern of ranch homes. They use a more charming exterior design that features steep gabled roofs, specialty windows, ornamental trim, decorative brick or stone chimneys, and exposed rafters. Some consider them over-the-top, and they often didn’t garner the same level of prestige as other styles.
Pros and cons of ranch homes
We have already briefly highlighted some of the advantages/disadvantages of ranch homes, but let’s get into them a little more below.
Great alternative to two-story living
Ranch style homes are great for families with young children or older homeowners who no longer want to navigate two-story living because you don’t have to worry so much about stairs.
Lower maintenance and repair costs
“Maintenance is going to be a little easier,” says Grindel. This is because the low-pitch roofs you find on a ranch-style home provide easy access to gutters and windows. This helps with the cost of exterior cleaning (when those pesky leaves start to fall) or upgrading (because contractors won’t have to risk their lives climbing two stories on a ladder to patch your roof). It also simplifies tasks like installing holiday decor.
Ranch homes are easy to remodel or expand because most interior walls aren’t load bearing, making them incredibly customizable for desired upgrades. In fact, in 2018, HGTV announced plans to purchase and restore the home used for all the exterior shots of the Brady family home when it went on the market. The 2,400-square-foot home in North Hollywood was built in 1959; it sat on a huge lot and had two master suites. The house was originally listed for $1.885 million and garnered a lot of interest (and a bidding war with N*SYNC’s Lance Bass), but HGTV made a very competitive offer and purchased it for $3.5 million — well over asking price. The renovation was completed a year later making the interior of the real-life Brady home look like what we all saw on television. Although HGTV had a lot of hands involved in this quick renovation, ranch homes are ripe for modernization and remodel since the concept is already open, you don’t have to worry about potentially damaging a load bearing wall as you move things around.
Endless entertainment options
The ranch house’s open floor plan means that more of the home can be utilized for events and guests can move more freely through your space. Fewer walls mean that even as people move happily from room to room, everyone still feels connected, not separated. But somehow, people almost always seem to gather in the kitchen, so the kitchen island can be incredibly helpful for buffet-style gatherings and parties, making it easier for people to grab and fill their plate and meander to the super inviting patio.
Because ranch homes commonly utilize sliding glass doors and large picture windows, you’ll feel like you’re one with nature because the transition between the two spaces is fluid. Outdoor living space is a hot commodity. In fact, in 2019, $1.35 billion worth of grills and barbecues were sold in the U.S. Patio renovations and upgrades can bring a significant return on investment, so enhancing your space will not only help with the flow of your house, it can benefit your bottom line. “The ROI is there with any outdoor entertaining area,” Grindel says.
Not ideal for colder temperatures
If you’re not into winter home maintenance, a ranch style home may not be for you. Low-pitched roofs that make for easy maintenance also don’t drain well. In rainy seasons, that can lead to leaks. In snowy seasons, it can lead to a buildup of ice on lower edges.
Some ranch homes are also harder to heat because some areas of the house are much further from the heating units than others, and the sliding doors and picture windows are prone to drafts. Of course, these issues can be solved with proper winterization and energy efficient improvements like sealing windows and doors.
Buying a ranch home
According to Grindel, “Long term and over time, ranch homes are an awesome investment” because they’re great for multiple family types, easily customizable, and have incredible potential for return on investment.
If you can picture your family entertaining like the Bradys did (with a modern twist, of course!), and think a ranch house is a good fit, find a good agent to help you navigate the process and find the perfect home.
Header Image Source: (karamysh / Shutterstock)