-By Rick Reynolds
One of the first decisions many new home buyers face involves whether to begin with a single-story or two-story space plan. Ultimately, how does one choose one over the other? While there are conflicting—and often very personal—opinions on this subject, depending on your home site and personal circumstances there can be certain advantages and limitations to both. So, setting aside personal preferences and biases for the moment, let’s review some, starting with two-story designs.
Two Story Homes
Generally speaking, two-story homes cost less per square foot to build because the most expensive elements—the excavation/foundation and rafters/roof costs—can be averaged over a larger square footage on a smaller footprint. In addition, two-story homes are generally more fuel efficient than single-story ones because, for a given square footage of living space, less outdoor wall and roof area is exposed to the weather. This is especially true with full two-story houses which can have fewer dormers and valleys interrupting the roof (think fewer seams) than story-and-a-half homes of equal living space, optimizing both cost per sq/ft and energy efficiency. Lastly, two stories can mean less distance your plumbing needs to travel, and less roof to maintain.
Beyond cost and energy efficiency, there are other considerations as well. Two stories allow for more expansive views: e.g.: views over obstructions like trees or other houses. In addition, with a smaller footprint relative to living space, less of your land is taken up by the house, allowing for larger, connected outdoor spaces. Two story designs can also be more versatile because they have more attachment points for porches, connectors, and bump-outs that may be desirable now or in the future—elements that can transform style. In general, upstairs bedrooms have more privacy, and in households with teenage children, having bedrooms on two floors can allow for more separation.
But there are potential drawbacks to two-story plans as well. A stairway can eat up 100 SF of living space and add to the cost: not true of single-story homes. Also, in two-story homes, ceiling (and attic) heights are typically lower than single-floor homes of an equal square footage and can lack varied heights room-to-room, in some cases limiting opportunities for skylights.
Single Story Homes
Single-story homes offer distinct advantages as well. They offer more living space since square footage (and money) is not spent on staircases. And the lack of staircases can be safer for both families of small children as well as for older, mobility-challenged people. At either end of the age spectrum, single floor space plans mean infants can be more easily reached and no child gates on stair landings—and for those looking ahead towards retirement, single-floor living can mean the ability to age in place and wheelchair accessibility. Also, benefiting families in all stages of their lives, without the second story there’s no noise from stairs and upstairs traffic, and evacuation is easier in the event of a fire.
Practically speaking, single-story homes can require fewer bathrooms, since they’re all on the same floor: a potential cost-saving feature. Also, the mudroom and laundry room can more easily be combined, saving space. There are more options for varying ceiling heights and skylight. And lastly, single-story homes can be built in areas with building height restrictions.
Comparative Building Cost and Real Estate Valuations
Comparative building cost and valuations can be very subjective. As previously mentioned, a new single-story might involve higher foundation and roofing costs per square foot of living space, however two-story buildings may involve more challenging construction at height, a slower production schedule, an added staircase, and in some cases, a deeper foundation. But in general, given equal levels of finish, building costs are comparable enough so that your design decisions should not be based on it.
As for home valuations, some real estate agents think that, on average, two-story homes command higher prices. This bias is mostly a vestige of the 20th century family as portrayed on television: kids perched on stairs as mom and dad offered wisdom from the living room. But in the 21st century, as baby boomers face retirement and decreased mobility, and young families juggle child rearing and two jobs, single-story home valuations could well surpass those of their taller cousins.
The Bottom Line
So ultimately, choosing a single-story vs. two-story home is an aspirational decision based on where you see yourself now and down the road. But knowing up front the relative advantages and limitations of both can help ensure your new home best matches your expectations.