The Home Guru: Do You Love or Hate the Raised Ranch?

Do you live in a raised ranch and love it, or do you hate the design and layout? There are ways to update the design to a more contemporary or colonial style.

Since the inception of its design in the early 60s, never has the style of a house spawned more opposing opinions than that of the raised ranch. Some prospective home buyers are drawn to it, perhaps they grew up in one, while others say, “show me anything but!”

“I don’t know who exactly invented the design of the raised ranch, but whoever it was should be shot!” my architect friend Michael Piccirillo recently told me. Actually some architectural historians say that the design was created by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.

The history  of the raised ranch and its place in the American housing scene, rising from a clever idea to ubiquitous popularity, then to disfavor as a style, is a very interesting, strictly American phenomenon. Actually, while you see many ranch style homes here in the New York area, they originated on the West Coast in the 1920s. But once their influence reached the East Coast, the foundation had risen half a story and the one-level ranch was “raised” to create two levels.

The main complaints Piccirillo has about the elevated ranch are the same that we hear most frequently from the style’s other detractors, basically that the entrance platform between the main and lower levels of the house is normally foreshortened to the extent that it’s difficult to close the door behind you without stepping up a step or down a step.

Also, there is no provision for an entry hall closet and, as Piccirillo pointed out, the lower level is cut off from the main flow of the house. “When modernizing a raised ranch, it’s not easy to modify the space. It can become a more sizable project that’s more complicated than re-doing a ranch, cape or colonial,” he said.

Yet, it’s this very cut-off feeling that some people find desirable for converting a raised ranch into a mother/daughter layout or for an accessory apartment.

Basically the raised ranch is a one-story ranch propped atop a high foundation, creating a lower living space without really raising the construction cost appreciably. Normally that lower space is divided into one or two rooms, along with a half or full bath and a laundry room. The rest of the level is for the utility room and a two-car garage.

Another factor in the raised ranch debate is that its design has fallen into disfavor more quickly than any other style of house. Certainly the colonial design has been around literally since the founding of our country, and people still prefer it among all the styles. 

Supporters of the raised ranch, particularly contractors who build them, have said that you get more bang for the buck by raising the house on a high basement and creating a whole new level at a fraction of the cost that the main level requires.  Detractors would say that, while the inside may offer more space at less money, the exteriors are devoid of any distinguishing kind of features, so that large tracts of the design have tended to look alike.

Homeowners today are more sophisticated at all price levels and they want to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. On the longest block in my town with the most raised ranches, the transformation from alikeness started to take place in the late 1980s, first with the selection of new siding and windows, then with additions which many times included revamping the two car garage into living space and extending a wing with a new garage and a “bonus” room overhead. 

A while back, I met a couple. Annette and Lars Lindbergh, who first made me aware of clever ways to disguise the top-heavy look of the raised ranch with a front bump-out. Annette, an architect, designed what I call an “entrance tower” for the center of a raised ranch that remedies at least two of the design problems associated with the house’s design.  The tower is basically a one-and-a-half to two-story extension in the middle of the house which solves the problem of the small entry platform.

The entrance now becomes expansive depending on the dimensions of the tower and provides more room for a coat closet too. Also the addition of the tower tends to make the raised ranch look more like a colonial. The tower can soar two stories to impress visitors or to create a second floor for a large elevated walk-in closet or another bathroom.

Andrea Pike told me that the main reason she and her husband Rich rebuilt the front of their raised ranch was that she simply needed closet space where there was none.  But as a bonus, her home looks more like a contemporary colonial now, complete with ionic columns supporting the front portico.

“My neighbor down the street did a similar renovation project but had it look even more like a colonial. She advised how we might do the same, but we were already into construction, and are very happy with our results,” she said.

For anyone who’s living in a raised ranch who wants to update or upgrade the design to a contemporary colonial look, as the Pikes did, I’ve researched and worked with  a couple of architects and contractors who can help at a very reasonable cost. For contact information, just call my number below. 

Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® (PrimaveraHomes.com) affiliated with Coldwell Banker and a lifestyles journalist who writes regularly as "The Home Guru." Anyone who needs home advice or to buy or sell a home can email him at bill@PrimaveraHomes.com , or he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.

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Rosemary Peppercorn December 27, 2012 at 06:48 PM
I love our raised ranch. It's brick all the way around with some vertical white wood around the windows to give it a little variety. The top living area makes us feel as if we're living in a treehouse when we look into our wooded backyard. When someone is at the front door, I can easily slide open the living room window and ask what he or she wants -- no need to open the door. We do not have an attached garage, it's all living space, so that gives us 5 bedrooms and 3 full baths which has always been plenty of room. The kids are grown, so I'm trying to figure out how to convert the 2 lower bedrooms and full bath into a studio apartment to rent out at some point. We would need to add a galley kitchen in the hallway. My first apartment had a very tiny hallway kitchen, so I know it's possible. If we rented it for $500/month, that would make our current $700 mortgage even easier to make. We're very happy with our raised ranch.
William Primavera December 27, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Rosemary, it's great to love the space you're in. And it's a great idea to adapt the lower level to an apartment. Good luck with that!
Scott April 12, 2013 at 01:58 PM
A realtor once advised me to never buy a raised ranch. Nobody wants them, she said, so you would have a hard time unloading it when the time comes. After looking at a few, I admit that the raised ranch design is a low point in American architecture. They are all facade, that same garrison overhang with off-center front door, flanked by mismatched windows and fake shutters. The side and back elevations look like a big, boring box. They were a fashion of sorts in the 1970s, a time when building materials got really cheap; particle-board rather than plywood, laminate surfaces rather than real paneling or tile, shag carpeting rather than hardwood flooring. And everything awkwardly laid out, dark and dated, the ceilings low and claustrophobic. I recently looked at a riverfront property in a so-so New Hampshire city. Location superb, an ideal place to own a canoe. Here in 1970 someone decided to build his dream house. Yep, a raised ranch. Since he wanted a pool on one side, he squeezed the house so close to the far property line that normal-sized cars had trouble getting into the garage. After all, cars turn on an arc, not a right angle. So he remade the garage into a family room, sticking the oil-burner tank outside -- a charming addition below the second-story deck, which itself eliminated natural light to the lower level. A dream house of breathtaking negatives. So I passed on the property, convinced that raised ranches should be razed ranches. Whenever possible, start over.
Nyack Resident April 12, 2013 at 02:03 PM
"A realtor once advised me to never buy a raised ranch. Nobody wants them, she said, so you would have a hard time unloading it when the time comes." wasn't my experience. I bought a high ranch when I moved to Nyack in 1993 for $120k. I sold it 6 years ago for $540k. I converted the garage into an office. It was great for a family just starting out.
Cortlandt1 April 12, 2013 at 03:29 PM
I would only buy a raised ranch as a last resort. I like the look of a two story with a big front porch myself.


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