What Is a Split-Level House?

Learn what sets split-level homes apart—and what this floor plan can mean for the sellability of your house.

front exterior tan house with red front door
Photo: Brie Williams

If you've ever entered a home and seen two side-by-side stairways, one leading up to a higher level and one leading down to a lower level, you've likely been in a split-level home. Most common in the Midwest, split-level homes were an extremely popular house layout about 60 years ago.

"Split-level homes are an older style home that made their debut after World War Two and became super popular in the 1960s," says Tim Grant, an Atlanta-based real estate agent with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers. "They have staggered floor levels connected by shorter staircases. Oftentimes they have a drive under at or below grade—yard level—and bedrooms above the garage."

These layouts are no longer common in new, more modern builds, but they're definitely on the market if you're shopping these days.

Here's what you should consider if you're looking to purchase a split-level home.

What Is a Split-Level Home?

Split-level homes typically have three levels but might have as many as five levels. Instead of simply layering each level on top of each other (as in a traditional multi-story home), these levels are staggered.

"I find the best way to describe a split-level home is by the configuration of the stairs," says Christian Barnes, owner, president, and CEO at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Kansas City Homes. "If a home has a staircase that is split in half—thus a shorter flight of stairs—it would more than likely fall into the split-level category. Split-level homes tend to have staggered levels of living space."

One type of split-level home called a split-foyer home usually has a main foyer with split levels above and below the entry level.

"In our market, we refer to a 'split-foyer' as a 'split-entry,' because it's just that," Barnes says. "When you enter the home from the front door, you are greeted with stairs and you can either go up to a main living space or down to, most often, a garage, lower-level den, and basement."

In a split-level home, additional levels are typically staggered. The highest level might be on the left side of the house, with a middle level on the right side of the house and a lower level on the left side, below the highest level. Unlike split-level homes, a split-foyer home (also sometimes called a bi-level home) does not have staggered floors: The main levels are stacked, one on top of the other, so each level extends across the full footprint of the house—though you will have to climb or descend a half-flight of stairs from the foyer to access each level.

Maintenance for Split-Level Homes

As with all homes, there are special considerations to make when it comes to maintaining your split-level home. Courtney Klosterman, home insights expert at home insurance company Hippo, suggests paying special attention to your basement, roof, and foundation.

"Split-level homes tend to have kind of shallow-pitched roofs. In cool climates with snow, we need to keep these areas clear because that can cause interior damage," she says.

It's also smart to keep gutters clean so rain and melted snow can drain properly through downspouts and avoid pooling on the roof.

Water is also a threat in basements and lower levels. Klosterman points out that many split-level homes have finished basements or lower levels where water heaters or HVAC systems are also stored. It's important to make sure that any hidden pipes are in working order to avoid water damage to those systems.

"The Midwest is prone to flooding, so if you can, get a sump pump that can help alleviate any water problems," she says. "If you're in the Midwest, you're also prone to frozen pipes, so make sure any pipes in your basement are well insulated."

Water can also enter your home from the ground, so Klosterman says it's important to keep water six feet or more away from your foundation. Split-level homes commonly have ground-level windows into their lower levels: Keeping these properly caulked and sealed against water is key.

Barnes suggests paying special attention to the garage ceiling, since many bedrooms in split-level homes are situated above the garage.

"Make sure the garage ceiling is not only properly insulated to avoid cold/hot air escaping, but also ensure the materials are fire-rated, as many house fires start in garages," Barnes says.

Attic ventilation can also affect the lifespan of your roof.

"Some split-level homes with vaulted ceilings don't have the attic space to ensure proper ventilation, so homeowners might find themselves replacing the roof more often than a home with a traditional attic," she adds.

Selling a Split-Level Home

If you're looking to list your split-level home or wondering whether you could sell one down the line if you choose to buy one now, you're likely questioning if this style has good resale potential.

Klosterman believes that, with such a tight housing market and increasing interest in older style homes, split-level homes will maintain sellability in the immediate future.

"These houses might not be as aesthetically pleasing to some, but they do have great functionality, and that shouldn't be overlooked," Klosterman says. "In addition, a finished basement can go a long way now that people are working from home, their kids are taking classes from home, and they're engaging in home fitness."

In addition, older homes are getting more attention now that new construction has slowed, she says.

"More people are having to take a second look at homes that have been lived in for 20 plus years," she says. "A diamond in the rough is an opportunity to get into the market with one of these homes and spend the time to tailor it to your particular wants and needs."

The biggest downside to these homes is accessibility, because nearly every living space requires the use of stairs, which can be tiresome at best and hazardous at worst for children, people with disabilities, and older inhabitants.

"Be prepared to haul your groceries, bags, and even babies in car seats up and down stairs," Barnes says. "That can be a workout, especially for new parents."

Still, there are plenty of pros to this type of layout, Barnes adds.

"The biggest selling points of a split-level home is the ability to offer the most amount of usable living space in the smallest footprint," she says. "They are ideal for maximizing living space on smaller lots. Split-level homes typically boast lots of storage and easier access to attic space."

Split-levels may not be as common in new constructions, but if you're digging through your local market, don't be surprised if you come across more than a few of these distinctive floor plans—at least now you'll be prepared to assess whether you can make the most of a split-level home or whether you should keep searching.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are split-level homes dated?

    Split-level homes don’t offer the open floor plans many newer-build homes do, but that doesn’t mean they’re dated. The multi-level layout can provide privacy and quiet for families where one or two parents work from home, which contemporary floor plans may not. With the right design choices, a split-level home can feel as modern as a newly-built one.

  • Why don’t people like split-level homes?

    Some people find split-level homes lacking in curb appeal, since the roofline is so prominent and drastic. Also, split-levels can be challenging if you like to entertain, since any additional living space (a den, for example), is usually remote from the primary living area. And while split levels generally have more levels, meaning more rooms, the rooms are often smaller than many home buyers like, particularly those split-levels built in the mid-20th century.

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