Buying a Split Level Layout: Total Steal or Jungle Gym of Stairs?

When you see a split level layout pop up in your home search, you’ll get major Brady Bunch vibes and wonder if it’s even worth a second look. Compared to the open concepts on your list, it seems…dated.

But there’s more to the split level than meets the eye. In fact some split levels can be a great deal, like the jacket you find at the thrift store that’s underrated, vintage, and just what you needed. Whether it’s the right fit all depends on your stage of life and priority list.

To give you the rundown, HomeLight consulted with an agent who knows nearly every split level in her market (and lived in split levels most of her life), dove into the archives to find original split level floor plans, and scoured home renovation blogs to bring you the modern take on this Disco Era staple. Read on to learn about how the split level evolved, what it’s like to live in one, and whether it’s the perfect style for you to call home.

A split level layout kitchen.
Source: (yampi/ Shutterstock)

How did the split level come to be?

The lovechild of affordability and efficiency, the split level layout changed the way builders construct homes.

The history of split level layouts

Popularized in the 1950s and 60s, the split level is an evolution of Ranch-style homes. Split levels were affordable options for growing families who wanted to move to the suburbs. Because of its stacked design, the split layout with multiple staircases makes for efficient use of vertical space.

At one point, split levels were a huge part of the new housing stock. According to the National Association of Home Builders, in 1975, 12% of all new homes on the market across the country were a variation of the split level. If you’re shopping for a home in the suburbs, you’ll likely run into some split level homes considering that split level builds once comprised entire subdivisions.

Split levels were a departure from previously popular home styles. Multiple floors mean segmented rooms, which gives large families a sense of privacy. Most split level layouts have two living rooms, one in the basement for the kids, another up top for adults and entertaining.

Split level layouts today

According to an NAHB survey, buyers today prefer open-concept single story homes—only 3% of millennials expressed interest in a split level home.

Compared to the wide open spaces you see on real estate listings today, the split level feels quaint and dated to some buyers. In a Better Homes Gardens survey of most popular house styles, spilt levels didn’t crack the top 10.

You and your real estate agent walk into a split level…

For many, identifying a split level is an “I’ll know it when I see it” scenario.

Split level layouts vary based on the region and style, but generally “you walk in and you have the option of going to a living space and living space down. That’s how we define it,” explains Ginger Vereen, who’s sold 75% more properties than the average Raleigh, North Carolina, based agent and specializes in first time buyers and investment properties.

That’s different from a split foyer, where visitors enter and have the option of a sitting room at the entry, as well as stairs to either floor.

If you head downstairs from the entry, you’ll likely find a bathroom, then a bedroom or classic “rumpus room” for kids playing in the partial basement. If the garage is attached, you’ll find that downstairs as well.

Take the stairs up from the entry, and you’ll be in the living room and kitchen space. There might be a bedroom on this floor, but if there’s a third floor, that’s where the bulk of the bedrooms will be.

A girl using a laptop in a split level layout.
Source: (Ursula Page/ Shutterstock)

Features that define the split level home

Because of their popularity, you’ll find split levels come in all different sizes, styles, and layouts across the country. Some might feel mid-century modern, while others are more nondescript. Vereen, who actually spoke to HomeLight from her in-laws split level home, laid out a few common features.

Half stair everywhere

If you like Stairmasters, you’ll love split level layout’s most prominent feature. The home’s entry starts with two sets of short stairs, one leading up and the other down. With a third floor incorporated into some split level layout homes, there’s at least another set, meaning yes you can get your cardio in with an afternoon of chores. But, these aren’t grand staircases, more like baby grand—most of the stairs in a split level are half the length of a regular staircase.

Efficient use of space

To make efficient use of space, some split levels require you to climb a few more steps to access different rooms. We might sound like a broken record, but this is one of the elements that makes building split levels affordable.

Uneven lot

You can build split levels on a variety of lots, working with the hilly topography instead of excavating an entire basement or flattening the landscape. You’ll notice with many split levels that they’re built into a hill, with a lower floor emerging from it.

Attached lower-level garages

Split level layouts became popular during a time of suburban growth, which meant integrated garages became a pivotal part of the home’s design. The further out a family lived from the city, the more likely the breadwinner needed a vehicle to commute in. The attached garage was an attractive offering that also felt like a fresh take on the modern family home.

Lower level “basements”

They’re not always true subterranean basements, but split levels will always have a floor below the point of entry. A walk down the half-stair to the basement might take you back to your middle school sleepover days in a friend’s “rumpus room” or classic den.

Originally, people designated the lower area as a space where the kids could hang out. The stairs create a sense of separation and soundproofing for those loud playdates. The lower level also has an entry for the garage, and depending on its size, an additional bedroom or bathroom.

Mix of materials on the outside

If you’re looking for a home in any suburban area built around the ‘50s or ‘60s, chances are you’ll find a split level. A near national popularity means building materials vary based on region. They’re not all built from the same stuff, but split level layouts will have multiple exterior materials. Oftentimes, the lower level is brick, rock, or stone, and the upper levels are some type of siding or wood.

Low-pitched roof

Split level layouts borrow some design elements from the mid-century modern-style popular in the 1960s. If you looked at a split level’s low pitched roofs from the street, it might appear flat, with just enough slope to drain water to the gutters.

Large living area picture window

Like a noisy younger sibling, the split level layout borrows elements from its big brother, the ranch style home. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the ranch home originated the concept of picture windows. A hallmark of mid-century modern design, picture windows bring the harmony of outside in. In a split level, you’ll find the picture window in the upstairs living room.

See it for yourself: Split level layout examples

Descriptions are one thing, but you’ll really know a split level house when you see one. Below are historical and modern examples of the split level home.

A split level layout blueprint.
Source (re-sized): (Ethan/ Flickr via Creative Commons Legal Code)

This house plan was made in 1962 by one of the world’s largest producers of building products, Georgia-Pacific. Construction of split levels is simpler than other complicated designs such as Colonials or Victorians, so builders could share and use standard plans across the country and make adjustments according to the topography of the lot.

This early model has all the makings of a classic split level:

  • Positioning on an uneven lot with a structure that molds to the topography
  • Several bedrooms above the garage, which leads right to a finished basement
  • Entryway stairs that give you a choice (up or down) as soon as you open the door
  • Giant picture window off the living room for a nice view of the front yard

Fresh take on the classic split layout

For a modern take on the split level layout, HomeLight turned to Lauren Ahrens, one half of Austin Flipsters. The pair has flipped over a dozen houses in nearly as many months and counts over 25,000 subscribers on YouTube. This real estate duo updated a split level in North Austin earlier this year and gave it a fresh open concept.

A split level layout home.
(Source: Austin Flipsters)

The flat lot on which this house stands allows for the entire lower level or basement to be above ground. You can access the front entry through an outdoor set of stairs.

A staircase in a split level layout home.
(Source: Austin Flipsters)

You’ll notice the front entry has the hallmark of split layout, a half staircase leading up to the living room and kitchen, and another leading down to the basement, where you’ll find a bedroom and two side by side single stall garages.

A room in a split level layout home.
(Source: Austin Flipsters)

As part of the renovations, the Flipsters tore down the walls separating the dining room, kitchen, and living room for a completely open space. You can see the half wall by the stairs where a full wall used to be, but evidence of the rest has been removed. Visitors have to come up the stairs to enter the entertaining and social space.

A staircase in a split level layout.
Source: (Good Free Photos)

Pros and cons of split level living

So is split level living for you? Opinions are split (sorry, we had to) on the layout, but here are some pros and cons of living in this type of uniquely designed home.

Pro: Sheer bang for your buck.

Historically, the split level layout has been one of the more affordable housing types, which in part contributed to its popularity.

The Census Bureau started counting split level builds in their own category in 1973, at the height of their popularity. However, by 1988, the style’s popularity had dropped so dramatically that new construction company Ryan Homes took the style off its inventory. Nowadays, some trend setters believe the style is primed for a resurgence, but in many suburbs, that’s not the case.

“In our market, they are more affordable,” says Vereen, the Durham, North Carolina-based top real estate agent. “It’s a great deal because you’re getting more for a lower price, so first-time home buyers can afford more home than they would’ve been able to otherwise.”

In Vereen’s experience, the first time owners of the split level have aged and are selling the house as it was built, without many updates and perhaps still a shag carpet or two. The condition of the home, paired with its fall in popularity, means you could get a deal on one of these properties.

Con: Resale challenges.

The popularity of split level homes peaked in the 1970s. Now, many of those split level properties need updates. “Unless they’ve been gutted and updated, most buyers steer clear of them,” says Vereen. The style isn’t for everyone, so you might find it challenging to sell the home when the time comes.

“When buyers come to us looking for split level homes, we try to educate them on the resale value,” says Vereen.

“What I do see is people who buy split level stay there longer. And I think part of that is just waiting for that appreciation to grow so they can have some equity in it.”

Pro: Multiple living rooms.

The split level layout creates a series of segmented rooms across multiple floors, which (while less popular than open concepts today) can be a relief for families with older children.

“Split level homes are terrific for a growing family with teenagers, in particular, allowing each tribe in your family to have their own space and peace,” explains David Ewart, an interior designer with over a decade of experience from the Cotswolds in the UK, where the split level also had a heyday.

“This level of privacy also means that in many floorplans when you are entertaining, younger kids can still have access to the kitchen while you host in the living room or family room.”

Con: Lack of natural light.

With a split-level layout, the lower level or basement accounts for much of the usable living space, and oftentimes this area is partially below ground.

Original split level homes often have smaller windows, which were more en vogue at the time, but stand out like a sore thumb compared to today’s designs. The vertically focused design and series of walls between levels can also limit the natural light available in each room.

Pro: Perfect for investments or roommates.

Not everyone is a prime split level layout buyer, but the style works well for investors or a young buyer who might take on a roommate. The often below-average market value of split level homes makes it an easier investment upfront.

For a younger buyer living with a roommate, the split level could be an ideal arrangement. “I personally lived in a split level with a roommate, and it works great,” says Vereen. You can have your own floors, someone gets upstairs, and the other the downstairs.”

Con: Stairs pose challenges for children or aging relatives.

Because of its vertical build, a split level can fit a lot of space on a small lot. But that benefit comes with the drawback of stairs. Having to travel a half flights of stairs everywhere you turn can be exhausting or unsafe, depending on who lives there.

Young families will have to put up more safety features and gates to keep small children safe than they would with a ranch or single set of stairs, while people who’d like to age in place could eventually find climbing multiple sets of stairs a day to be an unrealistic challenge.

Should you go for the split to save money, or are the hassles not worth it?

After reviewing the house structure from all angles, one thing is clear: split-level layouts aren’t a good fit for all buyers. The staggered levels can feel dated and isolating compared to the open-concept homes that prevail today. Their waning popularity means selling your house down the line could be more difficult.

However, split-level homes are also more affordable in most markets (who doesn’t love a steal?) and the efficient use of space can offer privacy for a growing family or a few roommates. What feels dated to one buyer might feel retro and right at home to another. Before you put an offer in on a split level, consider if your lifestyle and stage of life is right for this uniquely laid out home. If not—on to the next one.

Header Image Source: (V J Matthew/ Shutterstock)

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