The Most Popular Home in America: Why the Ranch Style is So Pervasive

published Jul 20, 2017
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If you’re thinking of buying a home, you’ve likely given a lot of thought to what style suits you best. Are you drawn to the sleek lines of modern architecture? Or are you a sucker for Craftsman style? If your answer happens to be the modern American ranch, well, you’re certainly not alone—according to a 2016 Trulia study, it’s the most popular pick in 34 states in the U.S.

So what is it that makes this humble home style so pervasive, and more to the point, persistent in the landscape of American architecture?

A Brief History

The ranch is technically rooted in adobes and the more rugged wood-frame-and-sheathed ranch dwellings of the 17th to 19th century. However, self-taught San Diego architect Cliff May is often credited with inventing the style in 1932. This theory also fits the timeline, given ranch homes really took off as affordable housing for the suburb boom following World War II (especially out West).

By the time the ’50s rolled around, nine out of every ten houses dotting the American landscape were ranch houses. Said cultural historian Russell Lynes at the time, “Nobody could mind it. It was not experimental enough to be considered ‘ugly’ by even the most conservative, and it was not tricked-up enough to be considered ‘ugly’ by the experimental. It was merely ‘nice.’ It was ‘unobjectionable.’ It was ‘homey,’ and it was said to be ‘practical.'”

(Image credit: Anna Spaller)

An Enduring Design

As with most trends, ranch homes eventually did recede in popularity, dipping out of fashion by the late ’70s and early ’80s. Through much of the ’90s, the style lived with the perceived stigma of being a cheap or bottom-rung alternative to two-story styles like the Craftsman, cottage, colonial and Victorian.

Unlike more ill-fated fads, though, the ranch house experienced a resurgence after its initial decline. In the late ’90s, homebuyers began paying attention to this unpretentious style once again. Today—as evidenced by Trulia’s survey—it remains one of the most enduring architectural styles available.

“Ranch homes have an extensive history in the U.S., and I’d estimate that about 70 percent of my buyers specifically request this design,” said Elizabeth Baker, US Marine Corps veteran and Realtor with Carolina One Real Estate.

The Appeal

For homeowners who don’t find the style prosaic, ranch homes have much to offer. In addition to being relatively affordable in the grand scheme of the real estate market, this style’s single-story design makes it ideal for both baby boomers and young families alike—both of whom gravitate toward the style for what Baker calls the “long-term practicality” inherent with having no steep staircases. (In fact, this was a hugely motivating factor for me personally prior to buying my first home, a 1960’s era ranch.)

Fans of mid-century modern also love the style, which was favored by none other than major midcentury modern influencer, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Ranch-style homes boast a layout conducive to integration with the outdoors, too. Since they are built on slabs and often have expansive windows, the nearly unparalleled views of nature foster a sense of harmony with the elements.

Ultimately, many homebuyers who choose ranch homes settle on the style because of what it symbolizes: laid-back living. Typically situated on spacious lots and oriented to take advantage of large backyards, the ranch home begs to be lived in. Bonus? The style is a true American original.

(Image credit: Diana Liang)

Its Future Prognosis

With more modern house styles on the rise, can the ranch home maintain its stronghold in the American architecture scene? I mean, are they even being built anymore?

“Most new construction homes are indeed being built with two stories. This is mostly due to the cost of land/lots,” says Baker. “It’s a no-brainer—if you build up instead of spread out, you can fit more homes into a new neighborhood.”

However, she notes, it’s unlikely ranch homes will completely fall off the radar. They’ll remain appealing to baby boomers hoping to make a home their final destination. The same can be said for young millennials, who are starting to build families of their own and are seeking affordable and practical places to raise them.

“In upcoming years, the ranch design will likely continue to improve with modern architecture while maintaining its traditional charm,” suggests Baker.