We’re thinking the rage for mid-century modern has just about run its course, and something else will have to take its place. If it’s hard for you to imagine the big 70s split-level having the same kind of appeal, we get that.
It’s hard to see anyone getting all drooly over the split-level’s boxy exteriors and awkward entryways. So, we had a hard time getting excited about the one we were buying.
Then why did we buy it?
We’ve definitely got a city sensibility to us, and our suburban community is long on strip malls and short on charm.
It is, however, close to where we work. And it’s affordable. While we loved the idea of a small, vintage house in a great neighborhood full of old trees and great restaurants and independent bookstores and one-of-a-kind shops, we knew that just wouldn’t work for the lives we’re really living.
We’ve got two adults and a revolving door of three getting-bigger kids (with other parents who live about 60 miles apart from each other). We’re a financially-stretched, stirred family with members who need both proximity and space.
So, yeah: We bought a big, boxy split-entry house in the suburbs.
Livin’ the dream
Simplicity and sustainability are ideas we like a lot. Buying a house we can afford that works for the life we really live (as opposed to one we might dream about) seems like a different kind of cool. A more authentic one. Maybe our community isn’t full of great stuff and interesting people. Yet. Maybe our house is lacking some style. Right now.
But we see lots here to like. We think the suburban split-level may be a house whose time is coming, and we want to tell you why–so you can get in while the gettins’ good. (And because if more people who like what we like join us, the community will change in ways we’d like.)
Reason #1: We love our neighborhood
No, there isn’t the kind of hipster cool we see in Portland:
But there’s still a kind of cool. It’s just a different kind of old-school cool (now that the ’70s were 40 years ago). We’ve got sidewalks and streetlights and just as many big trees as any established city neighborhood.
We’ve got spacious yards…
While corner lots always tend to have more space, those aren’t the only ones with some breathing room. Our front yard isn’t particularly large, but it feels spacious because there’s a nice distance between our house and the neighbors on either side:
The neighborhood may be filled with just about nothing but split-level homes, but we’ve realized that there’s still quite a bit of architectural variety:
We like our neighborhood so much better than many of the new neighborhoods we see, with houses all crammed together on postage-stamp lots, nothing much more than paint color to distinguish one from the other.
Our neighborhood has an organic, grown-over-time quality that we just don’t see in new developments. Yes, almost every house is a split-level. And yes, some of them are pretty boring and dated. But we see so much potential here, especially for people like us. (Meaning, people with more energy than money, who like a good project and want to make a place their own.)
Take a look at this home, which was on the market for less than a week before a “sale pending” sticker appeared on the realtor’s sign:
This is a project house, for sure–but when we look at it we don’t so much see the dated color scheme and too-cute window boxes and boxy shape as we see that sweet bay window and space for kids and the trees framing three sides of the house. You can’t see it, but there’s a large side yard and a creek that runs along the back of the property. With an asking price of $164,900, we think this was a good deal. Apparently, someone else did, too.
And finally, even though we do have more strip malls per capita than any place should, we do have a tiny “downtown” area that dates back to the time our bedroom community was mostly farmland.
This 4-block area is filled with small, independent, locally-owned businesses. As much as we can, we try to spend our money here, rather than in Portland. We might not have a whole lotta dollars, but we’re supporting the kinds of businesses we’d like to see more of with the ones we’ve got.
Yeah, we really do. Right now it’s got all kinds of funky wallpaper, and we still need to tear the carpet out of the bedrooms, and the exterior needs paint, and the landscaping needs an overhaul, and most of the light fixtures are brassy uglies, and don’t even get me started on the living room ceiling, done in something we call “wedding cake.” (Close cousin to the popcorn ceiling, which we have in all our bedrooms.)
In spite of all that, we love the house because we really like how our split-level house lives. Some people don’t, citing issues with the stairs and the separation of kitchen and family room. We had some of those concerns, too, but in the end we decided that the things that work way outnumber those that don’t.
We actually like the separation of main living area from family room. We’ve got two bona fide teens and one on the cusp of adolescence. While I loved the open floor plan of my old house when the kids were younger, it wasn’t working so much anymore. A combined kitchen/dining/family room didn’t give my kids any privacy when hanging with their friends, so they preferred spending time at the houses of friends who had a separate room for playing games/watching movies/etc. Now, we’ve got a place that helps me keep them close, while giving them the space they need as they become more independent.
We’re pretty much a family of introverts, and some of us haven’t always lived with others of us. In other words, we all need our space, and we need our spaces to be flexible because we live in lots of different configurations: sometimes one kid, sometimes two kids, sometimes a different two kids, sometimes three kids, and sometimes just two adults. This house works for all of them, giving each of us plenty of room to do our own thing, both together and separately.
Our kitchen is roomy enough to hold a table for eating, so we’re using the dining room as a different kind of space. We’re not sure what to call it (Ella has dubbed it the Talking Room), but it’s a space where you can sit in a comfy chair and read, with just enough separation from what’s going on in the living room proper to be undistracted–but you still feel like you’re with the rest of the family. We’ve got many of our books here, and we’ve put in a big table for projects, puzzles, and playing games. (And we know the table can be pulled away from the wall and used as a dining table on those rare occasions when we need a dining room.)
The Talking Room is one of our favorite parts of the house, but it was a little hard to imagine the first time we saw it. In fact, the first time we saw the house we walked away from it. It was only after a deal on another house fell through that we came back for a second look. It was only when we forced ourselves to look past the previous owner’s style that we could begin to imagine the space with our stamp on it.
Once we started that kind of looking, we realized that the home offered flexibility, spaces large enough for all five of us (and friends), tons of light, and some period features that we like.
Reason #3: The Nostalgia Factor
Rick is the guy who put in our awesome cork floors, and Rick’s wife is Brooke, a lovely 30something who loves our house. What was the first thing she said when she walked in?
“Oh, this is just like my Grandma’s house. I would love to have a house like this!”
Now, Brooke is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I’m thinking she puts a positive spin on just about everything, but when I heard her talk about her Grandma’s house, I knew we weren’t crazy to think that the split level is a house whose time is coming.
When I was thinking about buying my first house, I was crazy for bungalows built in the early part of the twentieth century–the kind of house my grandparents lived in. I wanted nothing to do with the kind of house I’d grown up in–a 1958 ranch.
We’re thinking that today’s split-level is Grandma’s house, for today’s first-time buyers. The same young adults who can’t afford the close-in houses in the cool urban neighborhoods that we can’t afford. If that’s you, we’re here to tell you: Come on out to our ‘burb. Please. We’d love to have your energy, your perspective, and your style move in next door. We figure what makes a great place great is the people who live in it and the ways they transform it.
Reason #4: Style does not exist apart from substance; it emerges from it
For nearly 20 years I lived in a great place. (You can read all about it here, the site I created to help sell it before we moved.)
This river beach was minutes from our front door, and I loved the small, mountain community my children grew up in. They spent much of their childhood playing in woods and creeks, surrounded by people they knew who knew them. It was idyllic in many ways.
Problem is, I wasn’t able to live my whole life there. I drove 45 minutes to work every day. Last year, the kids began attending school off the mountain, in a town that’s a 30-minute bus ride away. And as Cane became a bigger and bigger part of our lives, the 40 minutes between our homes started to feel longer and longer.
As my life became more fragmented, I started to see all the ways in which I paid a high price to live in such a cool place. It cost me in time, money, and energy–which ultimately was impacting my health and threatening my ability to give the kids things they need now and in the future.
For me, where to live became a decision much like the one I faced with flooring: Was I going to choose something with surface appeal over something with deep-down things I really need? In the end, no.
So here we are in the ‘burbs, a place I never wanted to be, but I’m happier here than I ever was in that place that had much more style. I’ve cut my commute time by an hour every day. I get more sleep. I pay less in energy bills. I have less stress. We’ve got more people in our family, which means we have more love and connection with others.
There’s something hugely satisfying to me now about working where I live, and living my life on a smaller canvas–even if it means I’m living it in a big old split-level.
How about you?
Do you think we’re crazy to think the split-level is great? Do you love where you live? How does where you live work (or not) for your life? We’d love to know how it is for you, and if you’ve struggled with the same kinds of questions.