What Is a Bi-Level Home?

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As a modified take on the California ranch home designed by architect Cliff May during the 1930s, the bi-level home is sometimes called a split-level ranch, though split level homes may have three distinct levels.

May took his inspiration from the many Spanish haciendas and sprawling ranch homes that dotted the American West, designing his houses to take in a wide expanse of the outdoors with floor-to-ceiling glass. May's original California ranch home designs usually had bedrooms that split from a single, long hallway and sliding glass doors that opened onto a backyard outdoor patio.

The distinguishing features of a basic ranch house include:

  • One-story architecture
  • Low-pitched roofs
  • Open interior floor plans
  • Wide expanse of windows
  • Lanai-type patios
  • Open beam ceilings
  • Kitchen, dining and living room open to each other

A bi-level ranch incorporates most of these features into its design, but adds a second level -- not a full story -- with the lower level being more out of the ground than in it. Bi-level homes rarely have a full basement.

Carefree Living

The ranch house was intended to be easier to care for and more likely to encourage family togetherness than the classic colonial home with living room and kitchen downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. The desire to add privacy and variety, while still avoiding the perceived inconvenience of a long staircase gave rise to bi-level home designs.

Below Grade

With one level partially underground -- or below grade -- and an entryway that is positioned in the center of the house between the two floors, the entry generally has a short stairway leading up -- usually to the bulk of the living space -- and another down to a built-in garage, storage space or family room. This became a common design across the country that lasted through the 1980s.

Floor Plans and Layouts

Most bi-level homes have a floor plan slightly different from that of the California ranch homes with their L-shaped or U-shaped floor layouts. The bi-level home conserved space with its rectangular footprint, but added square footage by slightly lowering one level a few feet into the ground. Most bi-level homes have about 2,000 square feet of living space. Bi-levels also have a garage on the lower level -- with access into the home near the kitchen.

Bi-level homes typically include a dining area open to the kitchen and living room and access to an outdoor patio or backyard through a sliding glass door. Most of these homes usually have three bedrooms, two baths and a family or recreation room.

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