Ranch-style houses finding favor again

Millions built after WWII; dwellings could be fit for baby boomers

Ranch houses abound in this neighborhood  in River Edge, N.J. A popular style after World War II, the desire to own one fell.  But as the population ages, more people are seeking them out again.
Ranch houses abound in this neighborhood in River Edge, N.J. A popular style after World War II, the desire to own one fell. But as the population ages, more people are seeking them out again.

Carolina Loaiza and Steve Ramirez weren’t looking for a one-story place when they went house-hunting. But when they walked into a Montvale, N.J., ranch, they knew they were home.

“It was beautiful; it was perfect,” said Ms. Loaiza, a 28-year-old nurse. “I grew up in a split-level home, and I remember my mother carrying the vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs. When I saw this house, I really loved the floor plan, with everything on one floor.”

One of the nation’s most common home styles, ranches sprouted up by the millions across America’s new suburban landscape after World War II to feed an insatiable hunger for middle-class housing.

The ranch is a real love-it-or-hate-it style. While many consider them outdated and too small, others say ranches could be just the ticket for baby boomers whose aging knees are tired of stairs. And with revived interest in midcentury modern design, thanks in part to the TV show Mad Men, ranches may soon enjoy a second heyday.

The ranches of the 1950s and 1960s, with their long, low profiles, can trace their roots to 19th-century working cattle ranches of the American West, cross-bred with the horizontal Midwestern Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Wright created tiny ranches, called Usonian houses, designed for middle-class families.

After a long drought in home construction during the Depression and World War II, developers produced ranches by the millions, along with other styles, including Cape Cods, starting in the late 1940s. As more middle-class families bought cars, tightly packed houses near public transportation “could be replaced by sprawling designs on much larger lots,” according to A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester.

“It was at a time when land was still fairly inexpensive,” said T. Robins Brown, a historic-preservation consultant for Bergen County, New Jersey.

The houses were built at different price points and sizes — from two-bedroom homes in working-class towns to sprawling versions in more affluent areas. For many working-class and middle-class families, they were the first step into affordable homeownership.

“The ranch house was the home of the American 20th century,” architecture critic Alan Hess said in his 2004 book, The Ranch House.

By the 1970s, however, tastes were changing, and few ranches were being built.

“As a culture, we tend to get bored. There are these stylistic cycles,” said Michelle Gringeri-Brown, editor of Atomic Ranch, a quarterly magazine devoted to the style.

And in expensive regions, no one is constructing ranches because builders say it’s more cost-effective to make the most of a property by putting up two-story homes. Moreover, buyers tend to prefer colonials over ranches, several real estate agents said.

“Ranches are a bit stodgy,” said Kate Conover, a Re/Max agent in Saddle River, N.J.

Some older ranches have bedrooms so small that they can barely accommodate the queen-size and king-size beds many people now prefer.

For all these reasons, Ms. Gringeri-Brown said, many people are incredulous when they hear historic preservationists talk about saving ranches.

“Are you kidding me? I grew up in a house like that,” they say.

“I think when there are so many of them, you don’t necessarily appreciate them as a something special or appealing,” Ms. Gringeri-Brown said.

But now that they’re more than 50 years old — the age at which buildings are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — ranches are getting a lot of attention from architectural scholars.

And owners of ranch homes say they love living without stairs in an open floor plan. Rick and Darlene Bandazian downsized from a big colonial in Wyckoff, N.J., to a smaller ranch about eight years ago, after their sons left home.

“The population is getting older, and the need for this type of home is obvious,” said Rick Bandazian, 59, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “Ranches will be a hot commodity in the next decade or two.”

Eileen and Mike Meehan moved from a Victorian in Westwood, N.J., to a ranch in Upper Saddle River, drawn in part by the home’s sense of connection to the outdoors — a hallmark of ranches, which tend to have sliding doors or picture windows opening to the yard.

“We wanted a house where we could bring the outdoors in. This house gives you an expansive view of the property and the yard,” said Eileen Meehan, a real estate agent in Ridgewood, N.J., and the mother of four. “We weren’t looking for a ranch, but when we walked in we liked the feeling of the house.”

She also finds one-story living “very easy.”

The editor of Atomic Ranch, which was founded in 2004, understands the urge to expand and update older ranches.And many buyers choose ranches for their potential, seeing the basic rectangle as a building block they can expand on.

“There’s a lot you can do in terms of putting on an addition or a second floor,” said William Schmitt of Schmitt Real Estate in Fairview, N.J.

Edina Kacani, a 31-year-old architect, and her husband, Altin Meka, a 36-year-old carpenter, moved from a rental to an Upper Saddle River ranch last summer, with plans to add a second floor.

The editor of Atomic Ranch, which was founded in 2004, understands the urge to expand and update older ranches.

“Most homeowners don’t want to live in a time capsule,” Ms. Gringeri-Brown said. But she encourages ranch owners to update their homes in ways that respect their history.

“Don’t move into the house and immediately gut it, because you may come to appreciate the way the floor plan works,” she said.