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

© Solus-Veer/Corbis

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."