What Is a Bi-Level House?

Though similar, split-levels and bi-levels aren’t the same. Learn what a bi-level home is, plus potential downsides every potential buyer or seller should know.

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Photo: Emily Minton-Redfield

You’ve likely heard of split-level and bi-level homes, but did you know they refer to completely different floor plans? While both feature steps and staggered floors, a split-level and a bi-level are not the same—and one of these floorplans can be harder to sell than the other.

“Bi-level homes seem to have been most popular from the ’60s to the ’80s,” says Bret Weinstein, CEO of Guide Real Estate. “Though we do occasionally see new construction with them, this seems to be more and more exceedingly rare, as the overall market taste has moved more towards open concept and the ranch/two-story homes.”

Keep reading for a look at what a bi-level house is, plus what you should consider before purchasing one.

Definition of a Bi-Level House

Like a split-level house, bi-level houses offer levels within the home that are distinctly different from second stories or basements. These levels are staggered, not stacked. In a split-level home, you can see each floor from the main floor, but with a bi-level home, you enter the home and immediately encounter a staircase from which you must choose to go up or downstairs (this is similar to the layout of a split-foyer home). While a split-level is three or more levels, a bi-level is just two. (A tri-level, a similar layout, is three levels.)

“In a split-level, you walk into the front door and a large portion of the main floor, typically the living room, dining room, and kitchen,” says Gretchen Rosenberg, CEO of Kentwood Real Estate. “Off the kitchen going down is a short staircase to a lower level, which typically has a family room or hearth room, sometimes a guest room, and the entry into the garage. Off the kitchen going up is another staircase that leads to the bedrooms.”

In a bi-level home, those rooms and levels would be condensed into an upper and a lower level. These homes typically have a smaller footprint than more common layouts because of the way those levels are staggered.

“Depending on how the layout has been configured, usually, you’ll find common areas up the stairs like a living room, kitchen, dining room, as well as bedrooms,” says Andrew Pasquella, a realtor at Sotheby’s International Realty in Malibu, California.

The unique floorplan allows for different uses for the lower level.

“Downstairs can be a family or recreation room, laundry room, and maybe a guest bedroom or garage space, as well,” Pasquella says. “There is a total of two floors plus the landing.”

What to Know About Buying a Bi-Level Home

Pasquella suggests asking sellers whether the bi-level home you’re looking has been recently flipped.

“While it’s unlikely to find one that has not been updated by now, it’s still encouraged to do a full inspection of the property,” he says. “These homes can also be targeted by flippers who want to expand into the attic spaces or add a room onto the footprint, so it’s always a good idea to check any build quality that may have been done.”

If you decide to move ahead with purchasing a bi-level home, make sure you’re willing and able to tackle steps, as you’ll be using them several times a day to get from room to room. This is a factor to consider for resale, too: Elderly buyers will want to avoid a house with potential hazards, which can include excessive stairs.

“Think groceries, guests etc.,” Weinstein says. “This is the typical turnoff for a bi-level home.”

Finally, even if you’re just looking to buy right now, you’ll want to consider how difficult it might be to resell the home down the road.

“Make sure you are doing a comparative market analysis of comps of a bi-level vs. other bi-level homes and again vs. non bi-level homes to see if there is a substantial dropoff in value,” Weinstein says.

If you find that the bi-level home you’re looking at is priced considerably lower than other homes on the market, you’ll want to take that into consideration before making an offer. Of course, that lower price point could also be a draw if you’re trying to enter a competitive housing market.

“They usually sell for less per square foot than a ranch, two-story, or split-level,” Rosenberg says. “If a buyer doesn’t mind the stairs at the front door, they could get more house for the money in a neighborhood with different floor plan options.”

In short, buy the home if you love it and want to live there—just don’t expect to make tons of money off of it in the future.

“If you’re buying with the hope of getting as much appreciation as possible, a bi-level is probably not the best option,” Rosenberg says. “If you’re buying because you see yourself living there and it’s a good solution for your lifestyle, go for it.”

Selling a Bi-Level House

Depending on where you live and the current market, it could be difficult to resell a bi-level home, especially if your area and market prefer open-concept houses.

“The bi-level is historically the least-favored floor plan by buyers because the two floors are so separated, and the access from upper to lower is past the landing and downstairs,” Rosenberg says.

Even if your home has a lot of square footage, the floorplan can still be a turnoff.

“Think of a tri-level vs. a ranch: An 1,800-square-foot home in a tri-level may be broken up into three levels of 600 square feet, as opposed to two levels of 900 square feet,” Weinstein says. “Larger living spaces are absolutely in, so while there are always exceptions to the rule, most of the time people will defer to having as much square footage on one level as they can and as few stairs.”

It’s not all bad news, though: Some buyers will love the unique layout a bi-level house offers.

“Bi-level and split-level homes can be an excellent choice for families because of the privacy opportunities the multiple levels offer,” Pasquella says. “A little separation between the spaces of a home can go a long way.”

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