Musician Irene Bressler never imagined she'd live in a split-level home – a type of tract house built by the millions in midcentury housing developments that sprawled across the suburbs.
But when she and her husband decided to downsize from their five-bedroom Ridgewood, N.J., home, they ended up buying a Fair Lawn, N.J., split-level, which offered a lot of space for a reasonable price.
"Now I see why they're so popular," Bressler said. "You get a lot of bang for your buck." Bonus points for the lack of stairs at the entry, which makes it easy for Bressler to wheel in her harp.
Split-levels are the homes that millions of baby boomers grew up in. For people of a certain age, it's impossible to look at a split-level without thinking about "The Brady Bunch" and their shags (rugs and haircuts).
Buyers almost never start out asking for split-levels; they tend to prefer the stately charm of colonials, according to real estate agents. But the homes have a way of winning over buyers, agents say – in large part because they're bigger than Cape Cods or ranches, but more affordable than colonials.
Split-levels can be found in many regions, especially in neighborhoods developed after World War II.
"During the late '50s and early '60s, I think that's all that builders were building," joked Deborah Graske, an agent with Abbott & Caserta Realtors in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.
The homes borrow a bit of the horizontal profile of a ranch – if the ranch was sliced down the middle, with the bedroom wing bumped skyward half a story to create space underneath for a garage and family room.
It's not clear when they were invented, though a version of a split-level can be found in Sears, Roebuck & Co. home plan books from the 1930s, according to Minnesota architects Robert Gerloff and Jeremiah Battles, who wrote an online guide to renovating splits called "Split Visions."
"Splits offered a unique separation of social space, with bedrooms perched a half-story above the formal living space and the informal living space found a half-story below," the authors say. They shake up "the traditional American pattern of formal rooms on the main level with bedrooms upstairs and a full basement below."
But as innovative as they once may have seemed, they don't look fresh to today's buyers.
"People say, 'It's my parents' house; it looks like Long Island,' " said Beth Freed, an agent with Prominent Properties Sotheby's International Realty in Ridgewood. "But then when people give them a chance, they're very pleasantly surprised. When they go in with an open mind and envision their family there, it really works."
Buyers of split-levels are "typically driven by price and neighborhood," rather than a craving for this style of architecture, said Eileen Meehan, an agent with Keller Williams Valley Realty in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
But buyers often end up liking the floor plans. The spaces just half a story apart mean that teens can watch TV, play video games or hang out in the family room while their parents cook dinner or relax upstairs. Or in extended families, elderly parents can live in the ground-floor space without worrying about stairs, Meehan said.
"The floor plan flows nicely, and you can all have your separate spaces," she said.
"The layout just works," said Bressler, whose two children are in college. The Bresslers, who paid $415,000 for their home, removed the wall between the kitchen and dining room to open up the space.
That's not unusual. "I've seen split-levels where the whole main floor is all open," Graske said.
And homeowners can add a great room to the back or a master bedroom suite over the living/dining area.
"They lend themselves to expansion pretty easily," Meehan said.
Gail and Bob Stamatopoulos weren't looking for a split-level when they decided to move from their Craftsman colonial in Westwood, N.J., after two of their three children moved out.
But when they saw the large, open living and dining room spaces of an expanded, 1950s split-level in Washington Township, N.J., they were sold, because they like to entertain.
The home still has the original pine paneling in the family room – "very '70s," said Gail – and blue and pink tiles in the baths, which they'll probably update after they live in the home for a while.
The family still has a daughter living at home, and she and her pals congregate in the family room on the ground floor.
"It's a nice layout," said Bob – though he acknowledges, "I feel I'm going up and down the stairs all day."
Cindi Addesso has warm memories of growing up in a 1953 Waldwick, N.J., split-level that her mom bought on impulse, after getting lost and coming across the builder's model home. Addesso's mother has died, and she recently listed the three-bedroom home for sale.
"It was a great house for entertaining," Addesso said. "It was just an all-around great family house." Her mother could be in the kitchen cooking, but not feel removed from the guests.
She thinks there's going to be growing demand for split-levels among young buyers.
"I think today people are not looking for a formal house," Addesso said. "People are looking for more than one living space but want them both used. There's no more formal living room with velvet ropes, treated like a museum. They want a livable, comfortable family house, and that's what we had in our house."
She would be interested in living there herself, but she has a disabled son who can't handle so many stairs.
"I just hope some nice young family comes in," Addesso said, "and starts making their own happy memories."
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