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What Is a Split-Level House, and Should You Buy One?


Jun 02, 2020 by Matt Frankel, CFP

When I was born, split-level houses were still an extremely popular architectural style. The split-level house rose to popularity in the 1960s and remained popular throughout the 1970s.

Over time, tastes change, and split-level houses aren't built anymore -- at least not too often. However, they are very prevalent in many major U.S. real estate markets, so it's worth knowing about this style and the pros and cons of living in a split level house.

What is a split-level house?

If you aren't familiar with the concept of a split-level house, the basic idea is that there are three (or more) different levels that are connected with short flights of stairs. Some split-level houses have a garage, but not all of them do.

There are a few different variations of split-level homes. A side split is one of the most common, and it has the bedrooms over the garage on one side of the home and the main living areas (kitchen, living room, dining room, etc.) on the other side. In other words, one side of the house has two stories, and the other half has just one.

A standard split has an entrance at ground level. When inside, there are small staircases that lead to other levels. A back-split home is similar to the side-split concept, except that the levels are split from front to back, instead of side to side. To clarify, in a side-split floor plan, you can see the different levels from the front of the home. In a back-split floor plan, you can only see the different levels when looking at the home from the side.

It's also worth mentioning that while a bilevel house is often confused with a split level, it is a slightly different type of home. In a bilevel house, you enter the home between two floors. As you walk into the house, there is typically a small landing level with abbreviated staircases leading both up and down.

Pros and cons of split-level houses

Like all other types of homes, split-level houses have their pros and cons. So here's a rundown of the reasons you might want to consider a split-level home, as well as some of the potential drawbacks to keep in mind.

Advantages of split-level houses

Privacy

A split-level floor plan can be excellent for privacy, especially if there are bedrooms on both levels. I grew up in a split-level house, and when I was a teenager I moved into the only downstairs bedroom in the house, and both my parents and myself appreciated the separation. For this reason, split-level houses -- especially those with bedrooms on different levels -- can also be excellent choices if you have aging relatives who live with you.

Affordability

Split-level houses are often a bit outdated, and the concept of a split-level floor plan isn't exactly trendy. In many cases, this combination can result in a bargain on a price-per-square-foot basis.

Ranch-style benefits, but with extras

A split-level home combines some of the benefits of ranch-style houses with the extra space that comes with a multilevel home. In most split-level houses, the bedrooms and main living areas are all close together -- separated by just a small staircase. Then, there's generally a family room and possibly an additional bedroom on the lower floor or basement level.

In short, it gives you the square footage of a two-story home while keeping all of the rooms that you use most often close together. This also helps to maximize yard space, as a 2,000-square-foot ranch house will take up significantly more of your lot when compared to a 2,000-square-foot split-level house. In fact, there is a type of split-level house known as a raised ranch that really maximizes the ranch house benefits with extra space on a lower level.

Potential drawbacks of split-level houses

Lots of stairs

If you're worried about your ability to climb stairs, either now or in the future, a split-level house is probably not the best choice for you. Not only do you often need to climb stairs to get into the house, but then you either need to climb up or down to move between the living areas.

Awkward look

While they were trendy about 30 years ago, many modern homebuyers find the split-level style to have an awkward look. This can make them more difficult to sell than a ranch or traditional two-story house.

Should you buy a split-level house?

A split-level house can give you excellent value for your homebuying dollar, and it can be a smart choice for homebuyers who want some separation between living spaces while having the main areas of the home close together. On the other hand, it can be a bad choice for buyers who don't want lots of stairs, and the generally awkward look of split-level houses (when compared with modern homes) can make them tougher to sell.

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