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You’re reading through the MLS listing of a new potential home, and you see “Mediterranean house” advertised front and center. Right away, your mind takes you to the seaside villas of Spain and Italy with red-tile roofs and gorgeous courtyards. A life of romance and leisure is undoubtedly ahead. Sounds great, right?
It definitely can be, but beyond the mosaic tiling and rustic charm, there’s a lot more to Mediterranean houses. The Mediterranean-style home America knows so well dates back to the early 20th century and has seen fluctuations in its popularity over the last few decades. The style provides an excellent indoor-outdoor living balance, and the light, earthy tones give off a welcoming warmth. But, depending on your location and needs, the potential challenges may just cause more headaches than dreamy nights.
So how do you know if a Mediterranean home is the right fit for you? We talked to real estate agents and architects with over 50 years of combined experience, and we scoured pages of architecture research to bring you a comprehensive primer on the Mediterranean-style home.
How did the Mediterranean home come to be?
The Mediterranean-style home we’re familiar with today is more accurately referred to as Mediterranean Revival. The style combines the architectural influences of Southern Spain with the more-ornate features of the Italian Renaissance. But, while Spain and Italy were the initial inspirations, the style evolved through the 20th century to include the influences of Greece, France, Turkey, and even North Africa. If a country sits close to the Mediterranean Sea, there’s a good chance you’ll see at least a touch of it in the Mediterranean Revival home.
“What the architects in the early part of the 20th century did is they mixed and matched. It was experimental,” says Diane Wilk, an architect at Michael Burch Architects, an award-winning firm recognized for its work in Mediterranean-Revival architecture.
The reason why architects drew so much inspiration from those countries was pretty practical. They all have similar climates to Southern California and Florida, the two places the style first grew in popularity. The energy-efficient building materials and layout were perfect for the subtropical weather. With no air conditioning, the stucco walls and clay tile roofs kept the warmth out during the day and captured it inside at night.
That’s why, even with our modern amenities nowadays, you’ll still find Mediterranean homes predominantly in warm, coastal climates or the Southwest (though you can find the style throughout the U.S. and on six of the seven continents).
The style saw a popularity boom in the 1920s and ’30s, largely thanks to Hollywood. Using the style’s connection to coastal resorts and villas, films started showing Mediterranean homes as the picture of luxury and romance. Celebrities bought into the style and had their own grand Mediterranean houses built throughout Southern California. And with America’s obsession with wealth and opulence in the Roaring ’20s, the style quickly spread to residential homes. After all, who wouldn’t want to live like Buster Keaton or Clark Gable?
What are the different types of a Mediterranean house?
Some Mediterranean homes resemble a more Spanish style, while others have more of an Italian countryside look. But since they all share similar building materials and similar characteristics, they can all be considered a Mediterranean. Sound confusing? Here’s what you need to know about each and how to spot the differences.
As you can guess, this style takes after the original architecture found during the Italian Renaissance. During the early 1900s, more American architects traveled to Italy and learned from the 16th-century architecture, resulting in a more authentic look to these homes, says Wilk.
This is the more ornate-style of the Mediterranean, featuring larger homes, round arches, columns, and stately, iron balconies. According to A Field Guide to American Houses, first-floor windows are more elaborate than their second-story counterparts, and decorative brackets support the overhanging eaves. These homes are also more symmetrical than other Mediterranean styles.
A famous example of this style: The Villa Montalvo in San Jose.
The Spanish Revival style stems from the influences of the Spanish Colonial, Spanish Mission, and Mexican Churrigueresque architecture, and it drew from the Spanish heritage of Southern California and Florida. The homes have a more simple style, featuring clean lines, unembellished arches above doors, and low-pitched roofs. You won’t find the same elaborate details you see in the Italian Renaissance type.
These houses are also more asymmetrical and have few to no overhanging eaves. Decorative iron window grilles are also common, and don’t be surprised to find round or square towers on these homes as well, according to A Field Guide to American Houses.
A famous example is the Casa del Herrero home in Montecito, California. It was designed by George Washington Smith, one of the most famous architects of the Mediterranean style in the early 20th century.
The modern Mediterranean home takes both the Italian Renaissance and Spanish Revival styles and brings them into the 21st century. These homes bridge the old with the new. They are more “transitional,” according to Boca Raton real estate agent Charli Lynn of the Lynn Realty Group, who, alongside her husband, has over 32 years of combined experience. They still have the rustic feel of a Mediterranean but incorporate the modern amenities and touches that homeowners are looking for today (think white cabinets, open floor plans, and great indoor-outdoor living).
These homes resemble more of the resort-style living you most commonly picture with Mediterranean homes. Take Jim Belushi’s former house in Los Angeles as an elaborate example.
What makes a Mediterranean home Mediterranean?
One of the charms of the Mediterranean home is the warmth it gives off. The light, earthy colors connect the house to the nature around it, and the romantic feel almost transports you to a faraway paradise. So it’s no surprise the home always seems to come back into style every few decades.
“You feel good,” says Wilk.
“[The home] makes you feel like you’re going down to, you know, Cabo San Lucas, and you’re going to sit by the outside patio and have a margarita or something. They lend themselves to a happy place.”
A big part of that happy feeling comes from the core characteristics of the style, all of which you’ll find in each type of the Mediterranean house.
The majority of Mediterranean houses are constructed with stucco (which, in part, became so popular in the U.S. because of its use in the Mediterranean home) and are light in color (yellow, white, beige, etc.), says Lynn. It’s an excellent building material for warm, dry climates because it’s durable, low maintenance, and fire-resistant.
Mediterranean homes also have a low-pitched roof that’s often made with red clay tiles or terracotta. These roofs, if installed correctly, can last for decades and won’t rot like wood or potentially leak like asphalt. According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they also disperse warmth better than other roofing materials and can cut the transfer of peak-day heat into the home by up to 85%.
The windows in Mediterranean homes are also larger and usually shuttered, allowing for control of natural sunlight. Don’t forget about the arches above windows and doorways. These are a staple in the Mediterranean home, and they allow for sturdier walls.
Like the exterior, the inside of a Mediterranean home blends with the surrounding environment and climate. In the Italian Renaissance style and the modern Mediterranean, the layout usually allows for increased airflow to make those hot summer days a little more bearable. This means open floor plans, high ceilings, and arches above doorways, so there’s less separation among rooms. In these homes, you’ll also find more of a grand entrance, something Florida architect Addison Mizner, one of the early proponents of this style, put a focus on. There’s still an emphasis on airflow in the Spanish Revival style, but the rooms are a little more intimate and a little more enclosed.
You can also expect to see a fair amount of marble, granite, or tile floors, all of which stay cool in warm temperatures. That’s especially beneficial if you have a furry friend that has trouble fighting the heat!
As for the interior design, the Mediterranean has a simple-yet-elegant look. Wilk explains that similar to the modernist style the Mediterranean showcases bare walls with blobs of decorative features. You’ll see flashes of tile, ornate doors, or wrought iron fixtures scattered around to break up the space.
One of the perks of a Mediterranean lifestyle is its indoor-outdoor living, so, of course, you’re going to find a good amount of outdoor space in these homes. They almost always have a courtyard, patio, veranda, or even a pool to take full advantage of the warmer weather. And while outside, there’s an emphasis on shade and comfort in the spaces’ layout and furniture.
These outdoor areas are prevalent in the Mediterranean homes built in the last few decades, says Lynn. They provide a separate living space and are so crucial that the house’s flow usually leads to outside access points.
It wouldn’t be a Mediterranean home without the decorative, sometimes ornate details. Almost all Mediterraneans have bright mosaic tiling displayed prominently either on the exterior, in the kitchen, or even on the staircase risers. There are also beautiful exposed beams and fancy, heavy doors that add some color to the light walls.
Wrought iron is used often throughout the house, either on balconies, window grilles, or gates. Pro tip: If you have to replace a wrought iron railing or fencing, try to reuse the iron to create an elegant fixture to use inside your house!
None of these details are overdone in the Mediterranean home. They aren’t meant to overpower the house’s look but, instead, add just a touch of depth.
With all of that said, Mediterranean homes don’t come without unique challenges. Here’s what you need to know.
Not suited for colder climates
The more common headaches apply to those that have a Mediterranean home in colder climates. The larger windows and higher ceilings make the house harder to warm during the winter months, and the stucco exterior isn’t a great insulator. Energy-efficient windows and doors will help but won’t solve all your issues when trying to winterize your home. On top of that, the traditional building materials are designed more for warm, dry climates, so the constant cold and snow can cause problems.
The stucco, if exposed to constant temperature variations, can swell and shrink, and eventually crack. The terracotta and clay tiles can handle cold temperatures, but make sure you treat them or buy them specifically made to handle freeze cycles and the snow. Also, while the tiles are durable and can last for decades, they are vulnerable to cracking under heavy weight and pressure. So be careful about how much snow sits on them during those winter months.
Since the stucco exterior is continuously exposed to the sun and elements, it will require a good amount of cleaning and painting over time. And, since it doesn’t handle moisture well, you have to seal it every few years. Shifts in the foundation can also lead to cracks up the walls, costing you on average between $500-$1,000 to fix.
The clay tiles on top of the house are pretty low maintenance, but replacing the roof can be expensive if something does come up. The tiles alone are a pretty penny, but it’s also a delicate, more specialized work to get them repaired. It costs about $7.25 to $10 per square foot to install clay tiles, which is significantly higher than both wood shingles ($3.50) and asphalt ($1.50).
If you’re buying into a stucco home (versus one with wood), you might think you’ve saved yourself from any pest issues, but not entirely. It’s more prone to termite infestations because the material can crack and create holes. If any moisture collects on the stucco, it can easily attract ants and other insects (in addition to mold and algae).
A pest inspection is your best bet to make sure you’re not walking into a home already filled with bugs. But after you’re in, make sure you keep an eye out for any cracks or holes in the exterior that might act as an insect-only entrance.
If you’re able to work through these potential challenges, and the Mediterranean home’s look fits your lifestyle, then it may just be the style for you. Hopefully, you’re now ready to find your own Mediterranean villa (with the help of a top buyer’s agent), or maybe you’ll just save the style for your next resort vacation.
Header Image Source: (Alexandre Chambon / Unsplash)