Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A home-buying couple in their 50s had a heated dispute about whether to buy a one- or two-level house.

"There was a lot of drama for these two. The husband wanted a grand, opulent two-story mansion ... But his wife wanted the ease and convenience of a less showy one-level house," says William Wegener, the real estate broker who assisted the couple.

In the end, the woman's preferences prevailed.

Wegener says that disputes about whether to buy a horizontal or vertical house like the one above are hardly infrequent.

Sandy Jurich, another veteran broker who works solely with home purchasers, tells of a couple with whom she worked who never reached agreement about whether to buy a vertical or horizontal house.

"Finally they just threw in the towel and divorced," says Jurich, who's affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says homebuyers who have mixed feelings about housing styles should make sure they visit at least two horizontal properties and two vertical ones.

"Picking one over the other can be a huge decision with significant implications for how you live," Nash says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Try to project your future housing needs.

Whether you're 25 or 65, it can be tough to plan for your future housing needs. But attempting to look ahead is worth the effort, Nash says.

He encourages homebuyers to plan ahead at least three to five years.

"People nearing retirement have a lot to consider when choosing a house. At this age, problems with health or mobility can surface at any time," Nash says.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nash says couples with young children should think ahead to when their kids will be pre-teens or teenagers. Those for whom affordability is a major issue may wish to choose a two-story house with extra bedroom space for the changing needs of their offspring.

-- Factor in the investment potential for ownership of a one-level house.

Now that the oldest boomers are well into their Medicare years, Nash says demand is increasing for single-floor living among pre-retirees and retirees. The result: ownership of one-level homes should prove a good investment over time, so long as they're located in popular neighborhoods.

"No doubt the market for ranch houses will intensify in the future. Buying a one-story house in an area where they're in short supply should be an especially good deal," Nash says.

But he notes that some retired homebuyers prefer to buy a multi-level house where their grown children and grandchildren can be comfortably accommodated during overnight stays or vacations.

-- Think through the advantages of a second-floor "hideaway."

Perhaps you already work from home or expect to start doing so in the next few years. If so, Nash recommends you consider the advantages of a second-story office where you can concentrate with few interruptions. For similar reasons, many homeowners enjoy a tucked-away upstairs room where they can pursue a hobby.

"It feels good to have a space where you can leave your projects all spread out without anyone bothering you," he says.

Another less-than-obvious advantage of an upper-level retreat: you're further from the temptations posed by the high-calorie snacks that call out to you from the kitchen.

-- Avoid any property that requires you to build an addition.

What if you're over 50 and starting to suffer from osteoarthritis in your knees and hips, yet still wish to purchase a traditional two-story place? Should you consider buying a vertical property with the intention of building on a first-floor master suite later?

That's usually a poor idea, according to Nash.

"Getting an addition done will likely be more costly than you imagine and take six months or longer to complete," he says.

Of course, one-level houses aren't to be found in every community. However, if you're sure a one-story house is your best choice, Nash suggests you look at comparable neighborhoods to the one you've targeted to locate a property that's "turnkey ready." Or find a two-story place that already has a first-floor suite built in -- an increasingly common feature in newly constructed houses.

"But always remember that location should be the top element on your selection list," Nash says.

-- Differentiate between your lifestyle and that of your parents.

Maybe you were raised in a family that always lived in two-story colonials. Though you're emotionally geared toward buying this type of home, you intellectually realize that the simplicity of one-level living is better suited to your busy lifestyle.

If that's so, Nash recommends you step outside your comfort zone and envision a different picture of your ideal lifestyle.

"We all have to break from our family traditions at some point. The good life isn't about replicating your parents' choices. It's about embracing what brings happiness to you and your loved ones," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at