Ranch House Style. America’s One True Architecture.
The beauty, yet frustration of these homes is that they are a totally blank sheet of paper. Themes and regional styles apply almost too easily to this architecture. Couple all that with decades of well-intentioned but questionable renovations, and it’s hard to even know where to start with updating your curb appeal.
Today I’m going to break it all down, explain how to figure out what you’re working with, and show you what the possibilities could be for your Ranch House.
Ranch homes are uniquely American. Initially derived from structures in southwestern North America in the 20s and 30s, Ranch Homes were found in rural settings, typically…ranches. (I know, right?!?)
Long and low slung, the ranch homes had deep eaves to protect the interior from the sun. They were built using natural materials like local stone and terra cotta to help with the heat.
The layouts were a single level and sometimes included a central courtyard with a wall of doors in the main living space to connect the inside to the outside.
More spacious than the small neo-traditional cottages built for suburban neighborhoods in the ’30s, the wide Ranch footprint took up most of the lot size side-to-side, but still allowed for generous yards in both the front and back. And the playful cultural mood at the time allowed for the quirky detailing seen in the early styles.
The simple construction methods also meant ranch homes were easy to build in tract neighborhoods – and this is where the Ranch style really took off. Each development typically had 3 or 4 layouts to pick from and usually shared details and finishes inside and out.
People wanted open floor plans, vaulted ceilings, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and walls of patio doors that open onto large backyards – even pools.
And they still do. Ranch homes are perfect for first-time homebuyers who don’t want to get in over their heads or older buyers who either don’t like stairs or simply don’t want too much house to take care of. People who have lived in a larger multi-story home realize that the amount of effort and money required to own and upkeep a house of that size is simply too much. Ranch homes are the perfect antidote to the ‘too-big’ home.
And here we get to one of the biggest problems with real estate today.
A “Ranch” house can be from the mid-century (most are), but not all are considered “Modern” in style. Unfortunately, SO MANY realtors use these terms interchangeably, even as keywords, making it hard to understand what your house really is.
So the easiest way to figure out what you’ve really got is to stand across the street, directly in front of your house.
Is it a single story? (If it’s a stacked two-story, it’s probably not mid-century.)
Look at the roof. What shape is it? Can you see shingles? If yes, you probably have a Ranch. If no, or very little, you probably have a Modern.
Here’s a quick chart to help you decide which style you’re dealing with architecturally; while it’s not perfect, it can absolutely help narrow it down for you:
Learn more about the Mid-Century Modern style in my previous Know Your Home post RIGHT HERE.
Not surprisingly, there is a LOT of confusion about these mid-century home styles! A lot of new homeowners come to me asking for help with their “Mid-Mod” that they’re struggling with, and the reason they are struggling is because what they really have is a Ranch, and they don’t realize it.
This is often disappointing for them to hear, and I get that! Mid-Mods are really trendy right now, and learning you have a “boring old Ranch” can feel like a huge letdown. However, I think they’re equal in appeal, each providing ample opportunities to add your own personality.
Things that apply well to one won’t translate to the other. It’s super important to remember this as you continue to make decisions.
Once you’ve determined that you have a mid-century Ranch house and not a mid-century Modern, you can move on to determining the style of your home.
Okay, back to you and your decision to buy a ranch house. Congratulations, and I’m excited for you!
But now what?
Should you restore your new home to its vintage glamour, or turn it into a modern gem? Keep the current style, but update the bad parts?
Unless you have a very early or very unusual style home, I recommend updating a Ranch house instead of restoring, ESPECIALLY from a materials standpoint. Technology in the 50s and 60s just can’t stand up to the modern environment, or even current regulations. This doesn’t mean you can’t keep the wonderful original style, only that you should be smart about your choices.
Don’t get into this assuming you’ve got a hidden architectural gem on your hands. Owning a ranch home means you love it for its quirkiness and malleability, not because it’s remarkable. You love it for its location and excellent floor plan, not because it’ll win any design awards.
But it can be difficult to understand what you’re actually dealing with. Early ranch houses have most likely gone through multiple renovations and have had many added details over the years. Later ranch houses may not have had much detail to start with, meaning a restoration might not be desirable, or even possible.
Start by answering these questions:
Knowing the year your house was built can teach you a lot about building materials and methods. So, before you start any renovation plans or schedule that demo crew, first pin down a build date for your house. City tax documents are a great place to look if you haven’t gotten this from your real estate listing. The build date + your region can give you a lot of valuable information.
Determine what style of decorative detailing it may already have. Don’t worry about deciding if you like it or not, only what style it is today. It may take a bit of digging if it hasn’t been renovated thoughtfully over the decades. (For some typical ranch home styles, keep scrolling).
If you’re struggling to figure out what you’re working with and live in a subdivision or tract neighborhood, take a walk and look at the other homes around you. Doing this can often help you determine which parts of your house are original and which parts were added later. GoogleMaps is also a fantastic tool for this! Virtually stroll up and down your street and look at past years to see what has changed. If you know who originally built your house, ask them to tell the story. Sometimes even long term neighbors will know details about your house that can help you understand the journey your house has been on.
If yes, keep it, then make a plan to remove the things added through the years that no longer make sense, and refresh the parts worth keeping.
If no, you want something totally fresh, then start making a plan to get there.
Note: If you own a prairie style ranch house built in 1965, it doesn’t make sense to turn it into a 1950s storybook style home. The same goes for trying to add contemporary style to something like a french ranch from the ’60s. It won’t ever feel right! Again, let the house tell you what it wants. If you’re trying to integrate something, and it just isn’t working, that’s usually a sign that it’s not the right direction.
While every single ranch house is a distinct being, there are a few styles that most Ranch homes will fall into in some way. I’ve outlined eight of the most common below.
And I have kept these designs fairly generic on purpose, to demonstrate most clearly what the individual style is without confusing it. No mixing and matching here…
Because when you’re working with a ranch house, and because it’s such a blank slate, it can be tempting to mix and match styles, but I wouldn’t recommend that. It can quickly muddy the waters, and make your home look cheap or badly renovated. Keep to the style you’ve been given, and add your personality with the colors and accessories you choose.
Spanish is the original Ranch home style. Typically seen in the Southwest (and the tropical South, because of colonization), these homes utilize local materials and colors in their details. But all regions share some basic characteristics.
A – Courtyard Layout: The house’s floorplan is U-Shaped with a central outdoor space surrounded by three house wings. The courtyard can be open to the front of the back. It can be larger, often with a pool or water feature inside, or relatively small, with only a walkway and planter near the entrance.
B – Clay Tile Roof: This is the most recognizable marker for this style. Red, Rust, or Orange clay tiles cover the roof.
C – Grated Windows: On most homes, one or two windows will have some sort of decorative wrought iron grate over the windows. All windows will be grated in some regions.
D – Arched Windows & Doors: This can also be a regional detail, but look for at least one window or door to have an arched top.
E – Full Stucco Siding: While again, there can be regional differences in the walls’ actual texture, they will typically be covered in a warm-toned stucco.
First, start with a composite tile roof in a warm natural clay color. Yes, real clay would be more authentic, but is EXCEEDINGLY expensive, heavy, and difficult to keep up. Composites are a great and eco-friendly alternative and they look incredibly real!
Next, cover the main stucco surface with a warm white color and accent the door and window openings with dark brown paint to complement the roof and the wood on your exterior.
Then, decide which, if any, of the windows or gable coves could use a decorative iron grill. With all of the hardware, look for natural textures, but modern forms to keep your house from looking like a movie set.
Finally, finish everything off with a beautifully carved and paneled wood door. Again, keep the hardware neutral and dark with natural textures and modern forms for the latch-set and the wall lanterns. A native species American agave in the yellow variegated variety is a great finishing touch to your xeriscaped yard and complements the curves and angles of your house.
SOURCES FOR A SPANISH RANCH HOUSE:
Ramblers are the suburban evolution of the Spanish Ranch Style. Typically seen in the West, and especially California (you’ll sometimes see these homes called “California Ramblers”), they were built throughout the middle decades of the century. Ramblers are long, lean, and low, with mostly high set rectangular windows and deep eaves. They typically have central porches with room for seating in front of a big picture window. You’ll also find multiple siding materials on all sides of the house.
A – Asphalt Roof: This style usually has an asphalt roof, although metal roofs are becoming popular and look great on this home style.
B – Porch with Overhang and Western Arch Detail: A defining detail of this style is a central porch with a deep overhang and some Western arch detail. This is a carryover from the true rural ranch style that is still charming today.
C – Masonry Accents: The exterior will usually have some sort of masonry, which could be various colors of brick, slabs of stone, or even in some areas, rubble rock. Typically it’s a veneer and not structural, but always be careful when investigating its removal.
D – Board & Batten Siding Accents: Another carryover from rural buildings is the board and batten siding accents. You’ l often see this on end gables of the garages, but also around entire sections. Some regions will have this siding as it’s full exterior, while others use this very minimally.
E – Partial Stucco Siding: And finally, stucco siding will cover areas not treated with masonry or wood – a bit of a breather from all of the other textures and details.
First, choose a roof with a neutral but not solid asphalt shingle. The modern shake options are a great choice for this and will give the roof a lot of interest without it becoming the star.
Next, treat the wood and stucco surfaces with paint colors that complement the brick accent. I would do a bright white on the stucco, and a warm cream on the wood siding, garage door & shutters. I’d accent the divided light door with a soft blue-green.
Then, I would add contrast with the accessories. A bright polished barn light with a cage starts it off, and is complemented with door hardware and numbers that share its curves and its burnished finish.
Finally, I’d soften the front elevation with beautiful blooming shrubs, like this white rose, and fill the window planters with soft greenery and annual flowers.
SOURCES FOR A RAMBLER RANCH HOUSE:
Storybook Ranch Homes, sometimes also called ‘Cinderella Style,’ are the most playful and quirky of all the ranch styles. Let’s face it, they are not everyone’s taste, but that’s okay because it takes all kinds, right? Identified by their swooping rooflines and many charming and whimsical details, this style can be a bit of an acquired taste. Because of this, they are also usually the homes with the most renovation done over the years. Today, you’ll typically find them either exactly as they were originally built, badly in need of repair, or ‘updated’ with almost all detail removed except the sweeping rooflines – rarely in between. Because these homes often look quite bland with their detail removed, this is the one Ranch House style I would recommend “restoring”, keeping the fairy tale detailing intact and updating with modern materials in the original styles.
A – Heavily Textured Roof: The roofs were usually originally wooden or cement shake, but as they age past the 60-year mark, they may have had that replaced with asphalt. The shake texture brings the first touch of whimsy to these homes.
B – Cinderella Detailing (scallops, window boxes & dovecotes): This is where they get their quirk. Scalloped trim, dainty shutters, and even things like working dovecotes give these homes classic Storybook style.
C – Small Windows with X-Shutters: Windows are typically on the smaller side, often with a diamond grid detail. Non-working shutters are usually marked with an X-pattern.
D – Diamond Doors: Another whimsical detail, entry doors often have a solid diamond detail on the lower half and diamond divided window above. In the best cases, they are charming dutch doors. As these can be difficult to maintain, many have been removed over the years. Still, this classic detail is an easy modern update.
E – Wainscot Accent: The front elevation is usually decorated with a wainscot detail, in either brick or wood. Often these are expanded into planters and usually encompass the front steps.
First, congrats for sticking with this style! This is the mid-century style most at risk of disappearing forever because it’s simply not for everyone. But, you REALLY have to own it…so start by covering the roof in long-lasting faux cedar shake in a modern weathered grey. If your scalloped trim is missing a few curves, repair them or replace them entirely with a modern paintable PVC version on your entire exterior.
Next, freshen everything with a coat of paint, starting with a cheerful warm yellow on the siding. Accent that with bright white trim and accents and finish it off with a bold red door in a glossy finish.
Then, go for it with the accessories, because this is the style for bravery, folks! Add mid-century cursive house numbers over the front door. Then choose a diamond and scroll lantern and door hardware to match the numbers in a black tone for some updated contrast.
Finally, plant those front planters with bulbs that complement your home’s colors and climate year-round. A water-conserving green lawn in a native species for your region adds polish and keeps this look magical.
SOURCES FOR A STORYBOOK RANCH HOUSE:
In the Midwest, you’ll find this style of ranch over and over again, even in modern new-build homes. These homes borrow heavily from the much earlier Arts & Crafts movement and the Prairie School architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries. You’ll see this in the repeating rectangular shapes and the roof with its extremely deep eaves. This style is logical and straightforward – everything lines up in a really pleasing manner. Materials and colors are borrowed from the surroundings, especially the landscaping – look at the soil’s color and start there with matching!
A – Low-Slung Roof with extremely deep eaves: Materials are typically asphalt, in a tone that complements any stone or brickwork accents. The eaves can be up to 3 feet deep from the edge of the roof back to the house.
B – Tall Rectangular Windows: Large picture windows are made up of a grouping of tall rectangular shapes, with some that open for ventilation.
C – Siding divided horizontally: All the way around the house, you’ll find the surfaces broken horizontally, with a wainscotting or window mullions at the same height.
D – Repeating Square or Rectangle Shapes: In accent areas, you’ll find repeating square or rectangle shapes. This could be windows in a door, smaller opening windows in a larger group, or trellis details around the entry.
E – Natural Colored Materials: All of these materials are drawn from the warm Midwestern palette. The tans and browns of native grasses complement earthy jewel tones used as accents on doors and planters.
First, treat the roof with a simple 3-tab asphalt shingle in a tone slightly darker than already existing brick accent. This style is all about simple lines and the 3-tab fits the bill.
Next, choose a warm neutral tan to cover the stucco and trim, including the garage door. This really emphasizes the horizontal break up of the house and focuses your eye on the retro entry door.
Then, choose a color that complements the greenery surrounding your home for the front door. Bring in more clean lines for the accessories in the overhead light, the hardware, and the trellis.
Finally, soften up all those straight, horizontal lines with rounded arts & crafts numbers, and a series of soft fountain grasses. Make sure to choose a non-invasive species for your region, in colors that complement your home.
SOURCES FOR A PRAIRIE RANCH HOUSE:
Colonial is another term that is 1) troubling from a historical standpoint, albeit honest about what the people were doing here, and 2) a real estate nightmare. It’s become a keyword that gets tagged onto almost any home in certain regions. When it’s applied to ranch homes, It has become somewhat meaningless. But true Colonial revival ranch homes are charming homes with classic details and a distinct style all their own.
A – Classical Details: This style of ranch house borrows heavily from the architecture built on the east coast during the colonization of the United States by the English and Dutch. (Which they borrowed from their own architecture back home.) So you’ll see the pediments, thick moldings, and symmetrical window placements the same as you would on the buildings of the US’s early years.
B – Shutters, Faux Dormers & cupulas: Again, borrowing from older styles and larger homes, you’ll find shutters (sometimes non-working), faux dormers on the roof, and details such as cupolas. Both of these are typically found on much larger homes but are added here for effect.
C – Detailed Gable Vents: Because of the simplicity of the surfaces, you’ll often find more decorative gable vents, or even faux windows, a nod to the larger homes this style borrows from.
D – Divided Light Windows: Classic divided light windows, with even divisions like 6 over 6 or 8 over 8
E – Single Siding Type: The entire exterior uses only one surface finish. Often brick (painted or bare), but you’ll find full stucco or wood lap siding in some regions.
First, cover the roof in an updated grey faux shake asphalt shingle in a warm grey. This creates a crisp look and allows you to add accents in any color.
Next, create a clean surface with white paint over stucco or siding, or a white mineral wash over brick masonry. Paint all the trim to match, but alternate the finish with a gloss.
Then, bring in the color of your choice with two shades, a dark one for the shutters, and a brighter one for the door. Even though I’ve chosen a traditional navy pairing, these can be any color! Black with cherry red, warm chocolate & mustard, or coral & orange would also look incredible. Just keep the colors in the same tone, but use different shades, and put the darker shade on the shutters to ground the whole scheme.
Finally, add the finishing touches. Warm brushed brass on the lighting and hardware adds a subtle sparkle to the relatively simple facade. Last, add some structured softness with a dwarf laurel, letting it stay fairly loose to add some softness to all the symmetry.
SOURCES FOR A COLONIAL STYLE RANCH HOUSE:
Often referred to as “French Country” and sometimes not even called Ranch homes (but they are), you’ll also see these referred to as “Euro” or “European Style”. But what you’re really looking at is a single-story home with French accents outside and a symmetrical layout inside. All of this adds up to a small home that feels very grand. Very, very, very popular in Texas and Louisiana, but you’ll find this style all over the country.
A – Steep Pitched Roof: The roofline will be steeply pitched and is typically a series of hipped sections arranged symmetrically.
B – Accented Corner Detailing: Some homes will be brick and some stucco. But all will have these corner details called “Quoins” taken straight from French architecture.
C – Tall Divided Light Windows with Working Shutters: This exterior detail makes the interior so good! These homes have very tall door-like windows with divided lights and a center stile. In Southern areas, these shutters are functional for storm protection.
D – Grand Details: These relatively small homes are made to feel large with grand details like cupolas, low courtyards, and over-scaled lanterns.
E – Segmented Arches: Door and window openings will have shapes with straight sides, and a hard, angled corner before the gentle arch starts over the opening.
First, I would make sure the roof had a dark to mid-tone shake type asphalt shingle, or faux slate to add an elegant touch.
Next, coat the stucco with a soft neutral color, and accent the quoins with a darker neutral for a tone-on-tone effect. Then I’d complement those tones with a soft french green on the shutters.
Then, I’d dress up the entry door with a gorgeous arched wooden double door and burnished hardware and lighting.
Finally, I’d keep the more formal look going with neatly trimmed boxwoods on the patio and at the entry.
SOURCES FOR A FRENCH RANCH HOUSE:
Whelp, here we are. Popularized by a certain HGTV show that shall go unnamed, this has become a catchphrase for all current home trends. A style name so popular that it’s used as a keyword for homes with zero connection to agricultural buildings of any sort. Which is so confusing!!!
The biggest problem is that so many people come to me and say they unequivocally do NOT want farmhouse style anything. And yet…so many of the most popular finishes and treatments have their basis in this style. So listen, I totally understand the aversion to things that have over-saturated the market. But I would never want you to shortchange treatments that can add a warm modern touch to any home – on a farm or not.
A – White Wood Siding: First, everything is a shade of warm white. Second, the entire exterior is usually vertical wood siding, and very often board and batten.
B – Dark Roof: The roof is very dark grey or black. It will be asphalt tab style shingles in most areas, but metal standing seam roofs are becoming more popular.
C – Ample Covered Porch: Architecturally, these homes usually have a porch area that is covered and big enough for a seating area or porch swing. Or a hanging bed!
D – Natural Timber Accents: Warm wood accents are added on doors and as framing and support details. Sometimes you’ll see the shutters done this way as well. The wood is the exact same species and color throughout.
E – Large black framed divided light picture windows: Windows are framed in black with divided lights and typically have non-functional shutters painted to match the roof’s color
First, make sure your roof is black. If you live in an hot, sunny area (such as, ahem, Texas) this would be a great time to add solar panels or sheets to your roof to offset the solar gain from such a dark roof.
Next, coat the siding, no matter the material, in a soft white in a semi-gloss finish. Paint the accent pieces, like shutters, in a soft black finish.
Then, accent the contrasting finishes with warm woods on the entry and garage door. If possible, add wood post and beam detailing to the front entry or other structural areas, making sure to match the doors as closely as possible (this will be the hardest piece of the puzzle to complete!).
Finally, add modernized light fixtures, numbers, and hardware in a black finish. Watch the scale on the lighting and hardware, and keep it to the smaller side. Ranch homes have a shorter proportion, and large, “normal” sized fixtures can quickly overwhelm it. Last, soften the contrasting colors and crisp lines with a soft Mediterranean style landscape.
SOURCES FOR A FARMHOUSE STYLE RANCH HOUSE:
So you’ve decided that really what you want is to just modernize your home a bit. There are some easy ways to do that.
As with any of the other more ‘themed’ styles, getting a modern look deals with each of the same areas: roof, siding, color, and detail. It’s easy to go a little more contemporary, or more retro. If you’d like to keep it light and more neutral, that’s easy as well. As long as you keep your choices holistic by not attempting to mix styles, you’ll increase your curb appeal immediately.
Keep in mind, this won’t work on every single style, because some of the more fussy styles like Storybook, Spanish and French have the style baked into their architecture. Simply changing finishes is never going to make those homes feel any different.
But suppose you have a Rambler, a Colonial, or a Prairie style Ranch house, or someone has already added Farmhouse style to your home. In that case, you can make some simple changes that will make your home automatically feel more contemporary.
First, install a metal standing seam roof. A metal roof is an investment, but one that will not only improve your utility bill and last for decades but brings a modern touch to any home. Look for colors that are CoolRoof Council rated for the best utility savings.
Next, pick a single paint color, and paint everything in sight! This is most successful with dark colors, and yes, black. But you really have to lean into this, meaning every single surface, siding trim, accents, everything is the same color and finish. This trick is especially helpful if you have additions or renovations that weren’t done as thoughtfully as you would have done and you want to disguise it a bit.
Then, add some modern details. This one is so so easy! Keeping the scale matched to your house (probably to the smaller side), add lighting, numbers, accessories, and hardware in modern metal finishes that tie your whole house together. Another great way to make it modern is through landscaping. Repeating elements like these blue agave immediately updates the look.
Finally, add natural wood accents. Adding a little, or a lot, of a warm wood tone like cedar, faux teak, or even stained and treated pine (or a composite!) is an easy way to instantly modernize your home. There are multiple ways to apply it, all the way from doing just the doors to having full sections covered in horizontally applied wood planks. Every house will need something different, so work to apply wood in groups or full sections, and keep it visually balanced left to right.
Listen, this can be overwhelming! Don’t feel bad one bit if it’s getting the best of you. It’s a lot of decisions, and there are a lot of options out there. But, you can stay sane and get the house you want if you keep these five things in mind and take it step by step:
Do the research first to figure out the history of your home. Note the region it’s located, the year it was built, who built it, and why. These answers will help you determine the original style of your home. It can also guide you throughout the process with decisions on project scope and help you with your contractors.
If you know ahead of time the general history and quirks of your home, it can save you a lot of time and money when it comes to labor.
Using the history you just learned, and the style examples listed above, determine what style your house is and if you want to keep that style. Don’t forget to listen to your home, and don’t try to force a style onto architecture that doesn’t make sense.
Now that you’ve nailed down a style pick a focal point or feature to highlight and then put your most significant effort into that focal point. Your focal point could be the entry area, the courtyard, a big picture window, or the garage doors.
You can work backward, too – if you have an ugly garage door, work to draw attention away from that area by concentrating on others.
Decide which material, color, or texture is going to be the thing that drives all your other decisions and is threaded throughout your design. Want a metal roof? Then this would be your guidepost. If you want to use horizontal wood, this would be your guidepost. Want your house to be a specific color? Then that would be your guidepost.
Your guidepost is the thing that everything else is built around, and that which everything else must coordinate to. And you want to be ruthless – if something you’re trying to decide on doesn’t feel right with your guidepost, CUT IT! Alternately, if NOTHING is working, you may need to circle back and pick a new starting point.
Because ranch homes have a tendency to blend into whatever they’re next to, you must let the details on the house determine the design of the fences, driveways, and landscaping, not the other way around. If you have to add a retaining wall, make sure it uses one of your house materials. If you need to add a carport or trailer cover, make sure it uses the same scale and details as the house. Finally, when picking finishing touches, always make sure that what you’ve chosen coordinates with your home style. Mixing and matching across styles will only make your home look unfinished (and frankly, cheap). Keep it simple, keep it honest, and keep yourself sane!
And there we have it!
Ranch houses are a fundamental part of the American story.
To own and live in one is a pivotal part of a lot of our lives. So don’t let their moldable nature turn you off, or feel like you should discard a home that’s been made bland over the years. Ranch homes are the homes with the most potential – and these homes are ripe for a renaissance.
If you ever need help figuring out what to do with your own ranch house, please let me know!
I’m absolutely here to help!
Learn all about Ranch House style with ideas, tips, and sources to modernize your home.