One-Story vs. Two-story Homes: It's More Than Just Aesthetics

I grew up in a one-story, ranch-style home. By the time I was in high-school, I may not have known what I wanted in a career or where I wanted to put down roots, but I did know one thing: I wanted to live in a two-story house. Why? So I'd have a staircase to descend on my way to special events, of course. My parents' lack of a staircase for homecoming and prom photos was, in my young mind, a travesty. I rued the day I'd let my future, hypothetical daughter walk from her bedroom to the foyer in full formalwear, nary a staircase in sight. 

Many years later, I got my two-story house. But purchasing a two-story home had a lot more to do with factors like regional inventory, my age and ability, energy efficiency, and yard size than it did with making a grand entrance. 

While opting for a one- or two-story home is no doubt a personal preference, there are several other factors that can help you make the decision that's best for you and your family... and your prom photos.

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If nothing else ... stairs are a great place to pose for a picture / Shutterstock

Cost and Renovation Factors

Two-story houses typically have a lower price per square foot since they require a smaller foundation and less roofing. However, if you're planning to purchase a fixer-upper, you may want to opt for a one-story: you'll be dealing with fewer load-bearing walls, making it easier to knock down whatever which walls you please and add additions without considering extra weight. And, if you're after an open-floor plan, a one-story house can more easily accommodate that type of aesthetic.

Region and Inventory

If you already know how many levels you want in your home, you may need to manage expectations based on where you live. For example, in parts of the south, sandy soil means many older homes (as opposed to new builds) will be one-story properties due to foundational constraints. And basements? Forget about it. Likewise, finding a sprawling, one-story ranch in urban areas up north might be a challenge. Since two-story houses can offer equal square footage on a smaller lot than their one-story counterparts, your local inventory may dictate a one-story home.

If you’re considering resale, you also don’t want your home to stick out like a sore thumb even if you’re absolutely set on how many levels you want—we all know that “one house” in any given neighborhood. In particular, don’t buy the only one-story house on a street full of multi-level homes. Yours will look dwarfed and could make buyers think they’re getting less as you prepare to sell, says The Balance.

The Buyer's Age and Ability

Are you buying a starter home or a forever home? If it’s the latter, you may want to think about your physical abilities as you get older. Stairs can present a challenge and a hazard for older people, particularly if key rooms like the master bedroom are on the second story. The Chicago Tribune found that a whopping 82 percent of Americans age 65 and older prefer living on one level—so even if you’re convinced you want a two-story home now, you might change your mind in the decades to come.

Just as older people may prefer a one-story house, so too may families with young children or couples planning on having children down the road. Stairs can present a safety issue for children who may slip and fall. While simple adjustments like gates can help, they don’t always stop the most curious of kids.

Heating and Cooling

In theory, a two-story house is more energy efficient. When compared to its one-story counterpart with the same square footage, a two-story house has less surface area to heat and cool. In winter, it might benefit from simple physics, too—heat rises, so you may find less need to heat upper-level rooms like bedrooms during the colder months if your lower-level HVAC system is turned on. In practice though, heating and cooling for one-story versus two-story homes may be more of a wash.

Two-story homes often require multiple HVAC systems (one for each floor), which means twice the risk for maintenance and repairs if a system breaks. Then, of course, there are the summer months, when rising heat means cranking down the AC upstairs. Still, green-minded experts say a two-story home wins the efficiency game for heating and cooling. And since that accounts for nearly half of a home’s energy use, it’s worth considering.

Lot and Yard Size

Do you have a green thumb? Then you might want a two-story house. Again, this one comes down to surface area. Since one-story homes take up more surface area, you’re left with less greenspace on lots of comparable size than if you opted for a two-story property.

Maintenance and Cleaning

One-story homes win for ease of maintenance and cleaning. Obnoxious, tedious tasks like cleaning the gutters, roof maintenance, trimming the windows, or removing unwanted growth like vines is a lot easier on a one-story home; in fact, you may have to hire specialized help in order to fix these same issues on a two-story home, adding significant costs. Inside, it’s the same story. A single-level home is easier to clean, with a clear pathway along the floors and no tedious scrubbing or vacuuming on the stairs.

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