Architectural Styles: A Homebuyer’s Guide

When beginning your home search, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the onslaught of both real estate terminology and architectural descriptions. For the uninitiated, phrases like "French Colonial" or "post-war bungalow" seem like another layer of jargon designed to confuse the average buyer. The overview below will help you familiarize yourself with the basic characteristics of some of the most common residential architectural styles in the U.S.


Modern architecture refers to designs influenced and inspired by the modernism movement in art and literature. Modern architecture was a rebellion against classical architectural tradition, and as a broad movement that spanned many decades, it incorporated elements of art deco, arts and crafts, and ranch home design.
Common Elements:

· Open living spaces – Modernist homes usually feature open floor plans that combine spaces for dining, relaxing and entertaining.

· Clean, geometric lines – modernist homes emphasize spare geometric forms.

Technologically advanced materials – Rather than traditional wood and plaster, modernism advanced the use of new materials like iron, concrete, steel and glass.

Victorian Style

Victorian architecture refers to several styles developed during the reign of Queen Victoria. The Victorian styles evolved largely from the Victorian idea that architecture (along with fashion, furnishings, among other things) should be beautiful rather than practical. The last true Victorians were constructed in the early 1900s, but contemporary builders often borrow Victorian ideas, designing eclectic "neo-Victorians." These homes combine modern materials with 19th century details, such as curved towers and spindled porches.
Common Elements:

· Any and all exterior finishes, from brick to shingles to terra cotta

· Different exterior wall textures or materials on the same facade

· Asymmetrical facade with extensive wood or brick patterning or detailing

· Extensive ornamental and decorative accents, usually in one of the following themes: delicate posts and spindles, raised classical columns, fancy half-timbering, or intricately patterned stone or brick

· Front entryway and significant part (or all) of front facade covered by a porch


The name "bungalow" originates from India, where it indicated a small, thatched home. In the United States what we call bungalows became popular during the 1880’s in California, in part as a reaction to the elaborate nature of Victorian style. The style grew in popularity throughout the early 20th century.
Common Elements:

· One or one-and-a-half stories

· Wood, brick or stone exterior finishes

· Rectangular building with low profile

· Simple facade with few decorative details

· Projecting, covered front porch with entryway set off to one side

· Interior Characteristics: Kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms laid around central living room


A descendent of the bungalow style, the craftsman gained popularity at the turn of the 20th century. Often called the "California bungalow", these homes feature overhanging eaves, a low-slung gabled roof, and wide front porches supported by columns.
Common Elements:

· Exterior or natural materials, like wood or stone

· Asymmetrical facade

· Large porch with square pillars or columns holding up the corners

· Ornamental braces

· Stone chimney

· One story

· Relatively low-pitched (flat) roof

· Interior Characteristics: Built-in china cabinets, nooks, desks, etc.

· Exposed beams. The beams on the porch and inside the house are often exposed.

· Open floor plan. The Arts and Crafts Movement rejected the small, boxy rooms like those in Victorian houses.

Ranch Style

The ranch style home emerged in the 1930s and grew in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding with the growing role of the automobile in American lifestyle. The style draws on elements of Spanish Colonial and Prairie and Craftsman homes, and is characterized by its one-story, pitched-roof construction, built-in garage, wood or brick exterior walls, sliding and picture windows, and sliding doors leading to patios.
Common Elements:

· Exterior finished in stucco, wood, brick or some combination thereof

· Low-pitched roof with medium to wide overhanging eaves

· Side or rear glass doors which slide open to a porch or patio area

· Attached garage

Cape Cod

Many of the first homes built in the United States were Cape Cod-style homes constructed in the New England colonies. Many of the Cape Cod homes on the market today were built after World War II, when thousands of returning soldiers and their young families needed inexpensive housing. A 20th-century Cape Cod is square or rectangular with one or one-and-a-half stories and steeply pitched, gabled roofs. It may have dormers and shutters. The siding is usually clapboard or brick.
Common Elements:

· Large, central chimney. The large, central chimney is located directly behind the front door, with the rooms clustered around it in a rectangular shape.

· Steep roof. Cape Cods have steep roofs to quickly shed rain and snow, and a shallow roof overhang.

· Windows and dormers. Two windows on each side of the door, and often a dormer on each side of the chimney to open up the attic.

· Captain’s stairway. "The second floor, often kept for boarders or ‘seafaring’ men, was accessed by a narrow stair, or ‘captain’s stairway,’ which has incredibly steep risers and shallow treads to minimize the use of the first-floor space," explains David Karam, an architect and builder from Brewster, Mass.

· Shingle siding. Weathered gray shingles are one of the most recognizable elements of a classic Cape Cod, but newer homes are built of brick, stucco and stone.


As the nations of Europe settled the new world, they brought their unique architectural styles to the Americas, building their new homes in styles that reminded them of, well, home. "Colonial architecture" encompasses a number of individual styles including Georgian Colonial, Spanish Colonial, French Colonial, Dutch Colonial, and Federal – although Georgian is often the style referred to in the colloquial sense of "colonial". Georgian homes find their roots in both Italian Renaissance and the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. These homes are often marked by a centrally located front door, evenly spaced double-hung windows and simple side-gabled roof. Traditional Colonial homes have paired chimneys, decorative doorways and plain, symmetrical fronts along with a generally rectangular and formal style.
Common Elements:

· Brick or wood exterior

· Small front porch with white rectangular columns topped by a triangular gable or pediment leading up to the front door

· Rectangular building

· Symmetrical facade — same number of windows on either side of the front door, etc.

· Two or more stories

· Relatively steep roof pitch

· Interior Characteristics: Living rooms on first floor and bedrooms on higher floors


Spanish Colonial homes date back to the original Spanish colonies and missions throughout the American Southwest, and are characterized by stucco walls, tile roofs and enclosed courtyards. Today the term Spanish Colonial Revival is used to describe homes built in the early 20th century that incorporate various elements of Mediterranean architecture. The stucco siding and small windows of the Spanish Colonial style make the homes very energy efficient.
Common Elements:

· Stucco exterior finish (usually in earthy, cream, or pinkish tones)

· Flat, red-tiled roof

· Small, circular accent windows

· Wide, square pillars on front facade

· Arches over doors, large windows and porch

· Square or polygonal towers

· Interior Characteristics: Tile floors, arches, wrought iron light fixtures


Built mostly in the first half of the 20th century, Tudor homes can be found in established communities in practically every region of the country. Tudors have half-timbering on bay windows and upper floors, and facades dominated by steep cross gables. While this highly recognizable style was often the choice of the wealthy for grand mansions, modest interpretations of the style are prevalent as well.
Common Elements:

· Steeply pitched roof, sometimes with mock thatch

· Large rectangular chimney with an ornate, cylindrical pipe-or "chimney pot"-on top

· Patterned brick or stone exterior, or plaster with half-timbers

· Decorative exposed wood framing known as "half-timbered" construction

· Asymmetrical façade

· Entryways are often arched and outlined with decorative brick or stonework.

· Windows placed in groups of two, three or four.

· Tall or narrow windows, multi-paned, with panes sometimes arranged in a diamond pattern.

· Front door of vertical wood planks


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