Four Reasons People Don't Care for Split Level Homes - And, How to Fix'em!

Real Estate Agent with Hasson Company, Realtors

According to recent press...  Here's the top 4 reasons people don't care for the idea of a split level home, and how you can make them the most desirable home on the market...

4 reasons people hate split-levels - and how to fix 'em © Solus-Veer/Corbis

Splits soared in popularity during the 1970s, when modest-priced lots called for modest homes that made the most of limited square footage. Today, they can be salvaged to fit modern life. Here's how. By Christopher Solomon, MSN Real Estate

Few things recall a certain time in America - and evoke strong reactions - quite like the split-level house. Just saying the name conjures "The Brady Bunch," doesn't it?

But Americans long ago fell out of love with this ubiquitous home style. While 12% of new homes built in 1975 were split-level homes - 21% in the Midwest - in 2006 they represented less than 1% of the new homes built in the country, according to a National Association of Home Builders survey.

Yet there are signs that - if not exactly a revival - the split is getting new respect. The reasons range from nostalgia for splits, as the so-called "midcentury modern" style increases in popularity, to the migration of more people from sprawling suburbs back to the split-filled inner-ring neighborhoods, with their easier commutes to cities.

Both trends have people retooling splits for today's way of living.

"There are a lot of them, and they were kind of inexpensive to begin with, so you don't really tend to think of luxury and split-level together. But that doesn't mean they're hopeless," says Ann Robinson, a partner in Renovation Design Group of Salt Lake City. "You can do some really interesting things" with them, she says. (Check out our slide show for some examples.)

What is a split? And why do they exist at all?
What is a split, anyway? For most of us, a split is sort of like pornography - we know it when we see it. But "split" and "split-level" are general terms for two different kinds of homes:

  • A true split-level home has a front door that's at the same elevation as one part of a home (usually the dining room and kitchen), while the rest of the home stacks atop itself, a half-story up or down from that level.

  • In a split entry, the front door is usually in the middle of the home, halfway between the upper floor and the lower floor. Stairs immediately lead up and down from the entryway.

Though splits began to appear as early as the 1930s, they really took off in the post-World War II building boom, and were popular through the 1970s for a number of reasons:

  • Land values weren't so high then, and so the homes on them weren't very extravagant, says John Mangan of Mangan Group Architects in Takoma Park, Md. Instead, the lots demanded an inexpensive home that made the most of the square footage.

  • Split-level homes didn't require a fully excavated basement, which was a real cost savings in the Midwest, where they became extremely popular, according to "Split Visions," an excellent guide for owners of splits, written by architects Robert Gerloff and Jeremiah Battles.

  • Also, the staggered floors allowed places for everyone in the family to retreat - a teenager to his room, the parents to the living room, the children to the "rumpus room."

4 common complaints about splits - and what to do about them
Still, splits fell out of favor, and for a reason - make that many reasons. They're dated and dark, to name two common complaints.

But that doesn't mean they can't be rehabilitated, say architects who get excited about their possibilities. "They are very amenable to being opened up and changed," says Battles, principal of Acacia Architects in Minneapolis. His firm specializes in remodels, and has worked on retooling several splits. "They can be easily adapted, and 'curb appeal' added, because they are so simple and plain in their form. So it's kind of like they're a clean slate."  

Here are some of the most common gripes about splits, along with suggestions on how to resolve those issues from architects who have revitalized many:

1. The problem: No curb appeal. Split owners often complain that their homes are ugly on the outside and not particularly welcoming. Why? Monolithic rooflines. Big garage doors that distract the eye. Front doors that get lost in an ocean of plain siding. A gaping "gutter" - like a wide gap between two eyes - between the main windows of the house.

To the rescue: Add some visual excitement. Touches both small and large can really make a split a place you want to come home to:

  • "Probably the very first thing, and most important, that can be done to fix one of these homes is to fix the entrance," says Battles. How? By adding a portico or canopy or enclosed foyer - something that announces, "This is where you enter." The second benefit: Pushing out the home's entry can create room for a mudroom or coat closet; owners of splits often complain that their homes lack storage and that the entry foyer (particularly in split-entries) is nothing but stairs.

  • Add façade treatments. On a horizontal home, for instance, even re-siding some areas with vertical board-and-batten siding adds some visual excitement, Gerloff and Battles say.  Around the edges of the home, add trim bands or other decoration. Add a muntin pattern (that cross-hatch design) to windows to boost their visual interest.

  • Break up the roof. If a single hip roof dominates, consider some dormers that break its dominance, Mangan says.

2. The problem: Floor plans that don't foster entertaining. Many splits were built with the kitchen wedged into the dark rear of the house, on its own, with little flow into the rest of the house or interaction with the living room or family room. "People are generally coming to us and wanting more gathering space. That means opening up the great room, and making the living and dining and kitchen areas not all in little boxes," Robinson says. 

To the rescue: Explode the kitchen. There are several ways to make this part of the house fit with today's style of living, in which the kitchen is the social center of the house.

  • Knock out walls adjacent to the kitchen to open up spaces between rooms, the architects say. That galley kitchen? Toss it in the harbor.

  • Add a peninsula or island in the kitchen that people can gather around, Gerloff and Battles recommend in "Split Visions."

  • Add to the house: Mangan likes to build an addition to the rear of the home. "The addition will basically be a kitchen, breakfast area and family room, across the back, at one level," he explains. He usually recommends a two-story addition: "You're usually doubling the size of these houses." That creates new space upstairs.

3. The problem: It's too dark. Splits often weren't built with windows on their ends.

To the rescue: Installing windows can add a feeling of space. Add windows at both sides of a corner when possible to bolster that effect, Gerloff and Battles say. Here's another idea: Add a four-season outdoor room behind the kitchen that will add space while letting in lots of light.

4. The problem: Not enough room. A frequent complaint is that while splits often have several bathrooms and bedrooms, they are so tiny that little more than a twin bed can fit in them.


To the rescue: Robinson says she will sometimes suggest that clients create a master bedroom by gobbling up the adjoining bedroom, creating a single suite from the two. If you opt for Mangan's suggestion of building an entire addition onto the rear of the split, there's not only more room for an expanded kitchen, but also for a master bedroom and a master bath - without losing any other rooms.

Clearly, all isn't lost when it comes to the homely split-level home. All it requires is some creative thinking. And maybe an architect. And, of course, money. But retooling a split is a good investment, Battles says.

"It's less expensive than building new," he points out. "And more sustainable than building new."

Other popular and related links...

How to de-'80s your house 

Slide show: The split-level home gets revitalized

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Information Courtesy of Amber Gardner
Licensed Oregon Broker & Director of Marketing for Gardner Team Real Estate  


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Mike Young, covering the USA - Las Vegas, NV
FHA 203k Consultant 916-758-1809

I agree with most of your points, however, some people just like them. Not everyone entertains, and I never notice how dark they sometimes appear until I see that mentioned in your post and I have to agree many times they do seem dark. Interesting topic for a blog post thanks

Sep 09, 2012 08:07 AM #1

We have a true split-level home. We opened the dining room and added a breakfast bar, made the kitchen and eating area huge. We do not like that the main level doesn't have a bathroom or bedroom.

Mar 15, 2015 07:42 AM #2

Split levels are horrible floor plans, especially the true split level plan where you walk in the front door and either go up a flight of stairs or down a flight of stairs. Because the levels and uses are segregated from each other by a change in elevation it's impossible to open up the kitchen to the living spaces and vice versa. Typical of the 60's and 70's, very bad Architectural design. Yuck.


Feb 14, 2017 05:54 AM #3
Lara V

Is it possible to add on a second story to a split entry? The kind of split with the big 3 car stall garage sticking out in front

May 25, 2017 07:44 AM #4
Jan Sutton

I bought my parents tri-level when my mother moved into a nearby retirement home. Just grit my teeth & did it. Now I love it! No long staircase anywhere -- no more than 7 steps to any floor. My split has huge living room/dining room picture windows facing each other; kitchen has normal window over sink & glass door to outside. Had bump out china closet put in for extra room in dining room. Widened doorway between kitchen & dining room, but kept living room wall. Needed for kitchen storage and huge mirror over couch, which reflects light into the room. Wish there was room for a powder room on that level, but there isn't. Put one in basement for family room. A compromise. As I age, this home is very comfortable.

Jul 24, 2017 11:02 AM #5

The real problem with splits is that so much of the living space is effectively built into the basement. I have yet to see a split where the "basement" level isn't damp and musty smelling

Jun 05, 2019 05:53 AM #6
Cindy Nibarger

I want to convert my trilevel house into a single or two story house

Apr 25, 2020 07:27 AM #7
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