For many years, the lure of historically accurate home renovation belonged mostly to people who owned homes falling into a small group of architectural styles. Remodeling magazines and television programs focused mostly on Victorian, Craftsman-style, or various flavors of Colonial architecture. Conspicuously absent from any fond attention was the simple ranch-style rambler, even though this is one of most purely American forms of residential architecture. But with most new home construction in the last 30 years avoiding the classic ranch-style home in favor of more neo-eclectic styles, the ranch-home is now become an object of historical interest, especially among young buyers who find these homes both affordable and less challenging to remodel than older styles.
History of the Ranch-Style Home
The ranch-style home has its roots in Spanish colonial architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which Spanish new world settlers focused on single-story homes that were easy to build using native materials. The low, simple roof lines with wide eaves helped shade windows from intense heat in the southwest U.S., and the style lent itself to both adobe/stucco construction or framed wood where timber was available. The style we now think of as ranch-style was introduced in San Diego, California in 1932, and quickly became popular throughout California and the Southwest.
By the 1950s, the style reached its peak, with nine out every 10 American homes built in this style, which was particularly well suited to post-war America's explosion of young middle-class families. This is the period during which the automobile became a principal focus of American life, and ranch-style architecture is responsible for attaching garages directly to the home. No longer known as "ranch-style," these 1950s versions more often were called simply "ramblers," and few of their owners understood origins of the style. In many cities all across America, there are huge tracts of hundreds or even thousands of ranch-style ramblers, all constructed between the end of World War 2 and the mid- 1960s, and all flavored by a style that originated in California.
In the late 1960s, American architectural tastes began to shift away from ranch homes, which, in the hands of mass developers, had become extremely bland and uninteresting. The open floor-plans of the original ranch style, for example, had given way to boxy, cookie-cutter floorplans featuring many small rooms arranged around a single central hallway. Rising real estate prices also played a role, with smaller lot sizes making one-story homes less practical than building upward, in two-story structures. Soon, the principal residential architectural style in America became neo-eclectic, a style which borrowed freely (and somewhat uncontrollably) from any and all previous architectural styles.
The late 1990s saw the beginning of renewed interest in the ranch-style home as young homeowners began to return to the cities and inner-ring suburbs with a focus on existing homes rather than new construction. A rediscovered interest in the neighborhood lifestyle made tracts of ranch-style homes a natural target of like-minded families whose interests focused on parks and school. Such amenities were already present in these neighborhoods, which had been built 40 years earlier for large groups of young families.
Ranch-style homes were affordable for young families, they typically did not have the massive and expensive structural problems sometimes found in older historical styles, and they were common enough that it was easy to source materials for historically accurate remodeling. Older homeowners were also rediscovering the merits of ranch-style homes. For older homeowners who no longer wanted to climb stairs, the single-story designs made it easy to age-in-place, and these neighborhoods were friendly for walking. The surge in interest for ranch-style homes came from both diretions—young homeowners looking for affordable homes in clearly defined neighborhoods, and downsizing older homeowners for whom the style made for easier living.
Features of the Classic Ranch-Style Home
Although ranch-style ramblers appear in many different variations, there are certain hallmarks of the classic ranch-style home to keep in mind if you are shopping for a home or are planning a historically accurate renovation:
- Single story
- Long, low-pitch roofline with wide eaves
- Hip roofs and gabled roofs both common
- Simple, open floor plans
- Living areas separate from the bedroom areas
- Attached garage
- Siding glass doors opening onto a patio
- Windows with a large glass area, sometimes decorated with non-functional shutters
- Vaulted ceilings with exposed beams, sometimes with tongue-and-groove roof decking
- Exterior siding materials are usually wood or stucco.
- Interior and exterior trim are usually simple, not ornate.
- Windows are thin-profile casements or sliders; metal frames common
Tips for Renovating Ranch-Style Homes
Remove the Carpet
Ranch-style homes are known for their use of natural materials, and most carpeting is anything but natural. In the 1970s and 1980s it was common practice to cover over hardwood or ceramic tile floors with synthetic carpeting—sometimes even in kitchens. If you pull up that carpeting, there is a good chance you will find a perfectly good natural floor underneath. Hardwood floors can be refinished and accented with area rugs. If you happen to have a later generation ranch-style home in which carpeting was laid over a plywood subfloor, then consider laying a ceramic tile floor—a choice that was quite common in the original Southwest ranch-style homes.
Maintain (or Recreate) an Open Floor Plan
The original ranch-style homes often featured an open floor plan in which living areas and dining areas were combined, but this original design feature was often lost in the mass-produced ramblers of the 1960s. Removing interior walls to open up the floorplan is an excellent way to get back to period authenticity with these homes. You can either take the classic stance of joining the dining room and living room into one space or use the more recent open-concept strategy of joining kitchen, dining room and living room into one truly great room. Either way, this modern open-concept principle is entirely consistent with the classic ranch-style home.
Lift the Ceiling
The 1950s rambler version of this style often featured 8-foot ceilings, which can feel quite low and claustrophobic. But the original ranch-style homes from California and the Southwest often used vaulted ceilings that went all the way to the rafters. So in a major renovation, consider tearing out the ceiling in the larger living spaces and raising them up to the angled roof line. Wood beams along the ceiling can be a nice touch.
And if the ceilings are cursed with popcorn texture, then remove it in favor of plain, painted wallboard. Nothing announces "fake" so effectively as spray-on textured ceilings.
Expand Horizontally, Not Vertically
Where room additions are needed, never expand upward by adding a second story—not if you want to maintain the aesthetic of a true ranch-style home. Instead, extend to the side of the house or with a T-shaped room addition off the back of the house. Many people find that the attached garage that is part of most ranch-style homes can easily be converted into living space without compromising the architectural lines of a ranch-style home.
Patio, Not Deck
Wood decks are quite out of style with a genuine ranch-style home. Instead, build a spacious patio, providing access with large sliding glass doors. Remember, this is a home style that originated in the Southwest, so use the building materials that are common in that part of the country.
By the 1960s, the expansive windows found in the original ranch-style homes had shrunk to small double-hung windows, partly out of concerns for energy costs. To return your home to ranch-style authenticity, replace those small windows with more expansive ones, preferably sliders or casement styles. Modern glazing options with double- and triple-insulated glass will make these windows much more energy-efficient than the older, smaller windows.
Replace the Doors
In the mass-produced era of the 1960s, it was common to use very cheap hollow-core doors in ranch-style homes. Replacing these doors with solid-wood frame-and-panel doors in a Prairie or Craftsman style—long vertical panels—goes a long way toward making your home feel like a genuine ranch-style.
The stock "ranch" moldings sold at big box home improvement stores may be a little too boring, but you should also avoid any hint of intricacy in the casements and baseboards in a ranch-style home. Simple square-cut case moldings and baseboards, naturally finished, will make your home look authentic.
Maintain the Fireplace
If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace in your ranch-style home, by all means, keep it, especially if it is constructed from stone or brickwork. And if it happens to be an open-sided fireplace, visible from both sides, then you already have a very typical feature of a classic ranch-style home.
If you are doing a major remodel that involves removing walls and creating an open concept, then adding a gas fireplace with a stone or brick enclosure and floating it to divide living spaces is a great way to recreate a classic ranch-style look.