Colonial-style homes have never really gone out of style, but they’ve intrigued more buyers lately. One commissioned 2018 Harris Poll of more than 2,000 Americans ranked colonial houses among buyers’ top three favorites, with 36% of respondents preferring colonials to Craftsman bungalows (43%) and ranch houses (41%).
A home’s layout is tied to its architectural style — something you can’t easily change, like paint color or flooring — and one reason why this is an important factor in when buying a home. In fact, photos and floor plans rank high among what buyers value when they check out home listings online, according to the National Association of Realtors, no doubt so that they can start picturing themselves within the space.
But what makes a colonial home… colonial? Let’s check out the history behind this elegant-looking style.
The traditional colonial: a taste of Europe in the American colonies
America’s original colonists created the colonial-style home by bringing the construction techniques and styles of their European homelands to the New World from the 1600s to the 1800s, according to House Plans and More, a division of Design America, Inc., which publishes books of home plans and designs, such as The Big Book of Small Home Plans: Over 360 Home Plans Under 1,200 Square Feet.
- A rectangular shape, with the longest sides being the front and rear facades, such as in this 1920s colonial in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Talk about narrow: Architects say some original colonials were only one room deep and two or three rooms wide.)
- Tall construction, with two to three stories
- A symmetrical exterior, with a centered front door and an equal number of multi-paned windows on either side, as in this 1820 colonial in New Jersey
- A steep, side-gabled roof, meaning you see only shingles looking at the house head-on
- A central chimney, or two chimneys that mirror each other at opposite ends of the roof
- A central staircase and entryway, with a compartmentalized interior
Colonial homes come in more than one style
As the nation grew, builders learning new techniques also developed “regional nuances” for the colonial home, based on available materials.
This means “colonial” covers more than one type of house, although they all tend to look boxy and symmetrical from the front. They include:
The New England colonial: found in the Northeast, including New England and New York, featuring huge central chimneys, little exterior ornamentation, and a steep roof with narrow eaves. (A Cape Cod-style house is actually a type of New England colonial, just one story and with shutters to resist turbulent weather.)
The German colonial: found in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio, featuring a limestone exterior, exposed timber, and hand-hewn beams (still with that simple rectangular shape, though).
The Spanish colonial: combines the original colonial traits with styling such as stucco, stone, fountains and enclosed courtyards. (ThoughtCo, an award-winning educational site ranked as one of the top 10 information sites on the web, notes that some preserved or restored Spanish colonial homes exist in St. Augustine, Florida, the first permanent European settlement in the United States.)
The Dutch colonial: found mostly in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, with the gambrel roof and flared eaves inspired by Dutch settlers.
The Georgian colonial: found in the New England and Mid-Atlantic States, this offshoot is named after the British monarchs at the time and added more grandeur. It still maintains that tall, rectangular base but has a medium pitched roof with minimal overhang, a decorative crown over the front door and perhaps columns on each side, and matching chimneys (again, symmetry).
The French colonial: found in the Southern states, especially Mississippi and Louisiana, this style is built for hot and swampy climates, combing the European base of the colonial home with ideas from the West Indies, the Caribbean, and Africa. Think of the exterior symmetry and simple rectangular outline but with a wide porch surrounding the house and a hipped roof over the porch.
Where you’ll find the colonial style today
Some popular comedies co-star colonial homes, like the Long Island mansion (a Federal-style center hall colonial) from the 1986 Tom Hanks film The Money Pit. The 1990 holiday film Home Alone featured a brick colonial from Winnetka, Illinois, and a reception in 2005’s Wedding Crashers showcased a colonial mansion in St. Michaels, Maryland.
Offscreen, you can find colonial architecture mainly in New England; the Mid-Atlantic States; parts of the Southeast, including Florida; and edging into the Midwest through Ohio and Illinois. Some style of colonial home ranks as the most popular American residential architecture in six states: Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, according to the online lifestyle site Best Life, launched in 2016.
“Almost every home in Pittsburgh more than five years old is a two-story center hall colonial,” said Georgie Smigel, a real estate agent for 30 years serving Pittsburgh and its northern suburbs.
People moving to Pittsburgh from other parts of the country where single-story ranch-style houses are more popular express surprise at the compartmentalized layout, with a living room on one side, family room on the other, a kitchen/dining room in the rear, and bedrooms upstairs.
“People coming from other areas have told me, ‘Well, that’s not what we normally have,’” Smigel said.
Living in a classic colonial house
Although true colonial homes in the United States haven’t been built since around the time of the American Revolution, there are those that still exist, as well as colonial revival homes with several assets. However, because of their historic stylings, these homes have their downsides as well.
The pros of colonial homes
Super-size entertaining space
Colonial-style homes nowadays might not accommodate a large family along with servants, like original ones did, but they still have a generous amount of square footage.
The certified professional building designers behind the company America’s Best House Plans of Marietta, Georgia, say the majority of their plans have 2,500 to 3,500 square feet, although there are some smaller ones at about 1,100 square feet and larger ones in excess of 11,000.
Built-in curb appeal
Because the original builders wanted to emulate the wealthy styles they’d seen in England, these homes look sophisticated and bold, even when you’re not standing in the distinctive entryway.
Although a colonial home’s grand entryway and symmetry is eye-catching, its features also are functional. The roof’s steep slope allows for snow and water to drain off quickly. The steep roof also promotes better ventilation during the summer.
Easy to expand from the rear or the side
A builder can add a portico, a porch, or a garage to an existing colonial and maintain the exterior’s consistent style, according to Better Homes & Gardens. “You can add a square to the back or the side of it, and it wouldn’t look like it’s an add-on,” Smigel said.
A versatile appearance
Because of the colonial’s symmetry, architects say it can feel both “minimalist modern” as well as “traditional and historic.” Designers love to use the décor to blend the past and present, such as the painted geometric floor and bright color palette in this 1915 Colonial Revival in New Jersey that nearly doubled in size after an addition.
The cons of colonial homes
Although a colonial home can be spacious, it doesn’t have an open floor plan. Rather, the interior has several small rooms, some divided in a way that residents used to a more open flow might find inconvenient. For instance, the living room is typically on one side of the entryway, the dining room is on the other, and the kitchen is in the rear. Because of the smaller interior rooms, homeowners can find it difficult to heat or cool the room evenly.
A historic colonial home tends to have low ceilings and minimal kitchen space, features you might have to accept if you’re restoring it to period-appropriate detail, according to the online service directory Angie’s List. (How low? Think of a standard eight-foot ceiling to accommodate the upper floor, which also limits your lighting options.)
A colonial home’s central staircase makes a grand statement, but it can make renovations a challenge, depending on how you’d like to modify the interior. (Some builders in general suggest that having a staircase located more in the center of a home allows for more storage space and better traffic flow, because people don’t have to walk through the living and dining areas to go upstairs.)
Regardless, the stairs won’t appeal to people with physical disabilities or mobility issues, or those who don’t want to go up a flight or two a few times a day.
Any older home has considerably more maintenance because of the wear and tear on the materials. If you purchase a historic colonial, you’ll need to keep an eye out for cracks in the brick or periodically paint or stain any wood clapboard.
In addition, the multi-paned windows that are a colonial home’s distinct feature aren’t as energy efficient as, say, insulated windows.
How about the price of colonial homes?
Classic Colonial Homes, Inc., a Massachusetts residential design, manufacturing, and construction firm since 1992, estimates the average construction cost at $250 per square foot but adds that this can be higher based on finish selections and regional trends.
For instance, the draftsmen and CGI artists at 24hPlans.com estimate that the average cost to build one two-story colonial home that has 4,457 square feet (including five bedrooms, three full baths, a half bath, garage, and a wine cellar) is $600,000.
However, in Pittsburgh, Smigel said a colonial’s rectangular shape requires a smaller footprint than other floor plans, making it overall cheaper to build.
“You get more for your money when it just goes straight up,” she said. “The plumbing all lines up; we have frost barriers around the whole thing. … It’s way more economical than having a master on the main floor with nothing above it, lots of roof lines, lots of shapes.”
Ultimately, the style of home you choose has to line up with your personal taste, as well as your budget. You might fall in love with a colonial home, especially if you feel like you’re a curator of history. Then again, that style may be just what you think about when you’re visiting a historic area on vacation.
Header Image Source: (Donald J..Price/ Shutterstock)