How homes have changed thru the decades…

Written by Posted On Monday, 18 April 2016 05:44


As a Realtor® I get t see a lot of homes from a lot of different decades. I can usually predicting what we are about to see, just based upon the era in which a home was built. Home styles and configurations have changed over time and homes became somewhat more predictable starting in the 1950’s with the introduction of tract home subdivisions.


The folks at Fielding Homes sent me this link to an interactive infographic that they created which shows the progression of homes starting in the 1950’s until the present. They tracked such things as the average number of people who lived in each household, the average size of the homes in Square Feet (from which they derived the average amount of Square footage the each resident had), the number of cars and later of TV’s per household and a few other statistics. They didn’t really comment on the sytles that each era embraced, which I’ll comment on a bit here.


The infographic starts at 1950, which is traditionally thought of as being the “modern era”. Homes build prior to 1950 were almost all custom built and are generally classified as “historic homes.” Interestingly in many small towns across America there are homes that one may consider to be the precursor to modern tract homes; these were the “mail order homes” that Sears and Montgomery Wards and a few other big mail order retailers sold for a while. One could literally order a home from Sears and have all of the materials and instructions delivered by rail to the local railroad stop.  The parts were all pre-cut and numbered and the homes were assembled on site by following the instructions that were sent along with the house. These homes were usually constructed by local carpenters. You can identify a Sears mail order home of you go down in the basement or under the house in the crawl space and see if the floor joists are numbered. To learn more about Sears homes, click here to see the WikiPedia page on them.


Historic homes were generally ranches (sometimes called cabins), bungalows or colonials in style. They may be much smaller than modern homes, especially the bedrooms and often the kitchens. Some may have been originally built without indoor bathrooms or plumbing (other than perhaps a hand pump in the kitchen). Some didn’t even have indoor kitchens. Assuming that you are visiting a nicer or more modern version of a historic Colonial home there would usually still have only been one bathroom and that was usually on the second floor, as were all of the bedrooms.


More upscale historic homes (usually those of the wealthy merchants of the town) might have had a parlor as well as a living room, a dining room and the kitchen on the first floor. Nice wood floors and wood trim in each room would have been normal, possibly with built-in bookcases in the one of the rooms (maybe the den or library if it had one). Really nice homes might have had two stairways, one in the front and one in the back that ended in the kitchen. Some may have even had servants’ quarters, which were usually reachable via the back stairs. Grand old houses in the bigger cities might have been three stories with a ballroom on the top level. If they had a garage, it was usually a single car detached garage.


Starting in the 1950’s the concept of subdivisions with tract houses that all looked pretty much the same came into fashion. The trend was actually a response to the need to build lots of houses quickly for soldiers returning from WWII who needed places to live. Many of these houses were the first in the communities to make use of drywall rather than plaster. Drywall was developed during WWII to make building barracks for soldiers quicker and more economical than plaster walls and ceilings. Many of these early subdivisions were built as small ranch style houses with three bedrooms and one bath, a living room and an eat-in kitchen. Many were under 1,000 Sq Ft. and most had detached garages, if they had garages at all. Today these little ranches provide the bulk of our “starter home” inventory. They also almost always had hardwood floors, but this was the start of several decades of the practice of immediately covering the hardwood floors with wall-to-wall carpet. Today’s buyers can’t wait to rip off the carpeting if it is still there and expose and refinish the nice oak flooring that was the norm back then.  


One can also find colonial homes built in this era and most are very traditional layouts – living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor (with maybe a library or den to balance the floorplan out) and the bedrooms 3 or 4 on the second floor along with the bathroom. Almost all of the homes that were built in the 50’s have been modified, added-onto or updated  in ways that add another bath or half-bath on the entry floor or in the basement and added the missing garage (usually detached).


The 60’s and 70’s saw the emergence of the “modern” homes and the advent of the split level home – bi-levels, tri-levels and quads. This allowed at least three levels to have full, daylight windows. It also ushered in the common practice of having the garage attached to the house with direct entry into the house. Garages got bigger in this era too, with two-car instead of one car becoming the norm. The concept of the “family room” was also introduced and the living room began to become a room that was only used when “company” came over. Dining rooms were still the norm, but many become little more than an extension of the kitchen. Kitchens were still quite modest by today’s standards and many were still “galley style.”  Most of the houses of this era had 1 and ½ baths, some even had two full baths. In the larger colonials of the era some builders even added the concept of a master bath off the master bedroom although most were fairly small by today’s standards. Wall-to-wall carpeting was still the norm during this time.


The 80’s and 90’s saw the emergence of the “me” generation concepts – larger kitchens, master suites with on-suite baths, walk-in closets showed up  in the master bedroom and the great room concept became more prevalent, but now with large, two-story, “volume ceilings”. This era also saw the emergence of the Cape Cod style home with everything for the owners on the first floor and a 2-3 bedrooms on the upper floor, usually sharing a bathroom. Libraries or dens on first floor became more common and most were converted to offices. Breakfast rooms or nooks replaced the eat in kitchen in many homes.  In larger homes amenities such as crafts rooms or wine cellars or movie rooms became common. The laundry areas moved to the first floor or even up to the upper levels where the kids generated most of the laundry.  Garages grew to 3-cars or more and large decks, balconies and patios became the norm. It was during this era that McMansions became the norm for upper end houses, even if they were on small lots. Hot tubs had their brief heyday during this period. Hardwood flooring reemerged as a preferred choice, with lower end homes choosing Pergola or other engineered wood lookalikes to save money. Granite counters became the thing to have in the kitchens and baths.


The turn of the century saw the continuation of many of the styles and features that emerged in the 90’s, with more and more “upscale” features and amenities creeping downward into more modest houses. The living room finally went away in many homes, as did the formal dining room – both victims of the more leisurely lifestyles of the era and the dominance of the great room and family room concepts.  Kitchens and master bedroom suites became the focal points of the homes, with large and elaborate master baths becoming common, as well as “gourmet kitchens” with upscale or industrial or restaurant-quality appliances. More and more choices of materials and finished came into vogue, with many choices other than granite becoming available for countertops and many new flooring choices to choose from. Outdoor rooms with pergolas became the entertainment centers for the warmer months.


So, when you see homes listed for sale, look at the years that they were built to get an idea of what you might find if you visit them. Certainly many homes have been updated over the years, but few have been extensively renovated enough to overcome some of the initial limitations that were built into them. Perhaps the basement was finished and an extra bathroom has been added over time or the kitchen extensively updated. Few undergo the kinds of renovations that one sees on the TV shows, where the house is gutted down to the studs and redone. Even then the bed room sizes can’t be changes much without adding on, so you are still limited in what you can do with a house built before modern times. Some people make the mistake of turning a three bedroom house into a 2-bedroom home in order to gain some extra space for a master suite. That might fit their needs, but is severely limits the marketability of the home when it is time to sell and probably decreases the value.


If you make a list of your “must-haves” before you go house hunting, you can use these guidelines to help you save some time by eliminating those built in era’s where your must-haves were “didn’t-haves”. If you want a home that was built later than the 1960’s you won’t find a lot of smaller, starter homes. Builders all refocused on the needs of the Baby Boomers and started building bigger houses with more amenities. Looking in a price range under $200,000 in this area of Michigan will almost always mean looking at homes that were built before the 1970’s. There were lots of homes in the $200,000 – 350,000 range that were built in the 1970 – 1990’s. Almost everything built in the later 1990’s to the present would probably be in the $300,000 and up range.  Call me and let’s discuss what you’d like to have and what might be available in your price range.


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Norm Werner

Norm Werner is a Realtor at the Milford office of Real Estate One serving the southeastern Michigan area of Oakland and Livingston Counties. Norm specializes in residential real estate. Norm lives and works in Milford Michigan and is married to Carolyn Werner. Norm and Carolyn live in a historic home just three blocks from downtown Milford, with their two dogs - Sadie and Skippy. Norm specializes in the historic homes of Milford and the surrounding area and is on the Board of Directors of the Milford Historical Society. Norm especially enjoys working with first time buyers and those at the other end of the real estate spectrum who are downsizing into their retirement home. 

In addition to his web site, Norm also owns and m,aintains web site, the web site. He is also the webmaster for and the web site and the MilfordCar web site, as well as his church web site - In addition to blogging about real eastate, Norm has a personal blog - - on which he shares inspirational messages and the occasions personal observation about life.

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