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Guide To The Most Popular House Styles

Molly Grace8-Minute Read
June 19, 2020

Have you ever seen a really striking or beautiful home, but didn’t have the words to describe it? The average home shopper isn’t an expert in the many different styles of residential architecture that exist, and in general, that’s OK – as you view houses, you don’t necessarily need to know if it’s a contemporary or a colonial to decide if you like it.

However, knowing a little bit about each of the most common architectural styles can help you describe to your real estate agent what kinds of houses you’re looking for. Plus, it’s a fun little bit of knowledge you can show off from time to time.

So, how can you tell the difference between a contemporary and a colonial? Here’s our guide to the most popular house styles in the U.S.

Cape Cod

Cape Cod House

Cape Cod homes are often quaint and charming, but they have a lot more going for them than just picturesque exteriors. Cape Cod architecture is made to be sturdy and durable. After all, these were the homes that had to protect the early New England settlers from punishingly harsh winters.

More recently, Cape Cod-style homes played a significant role in alleviating the housing crisis that followed World War II. New home construction was at a standstill throughout the war, and when soldiers began to return home, there weren’t enough houses to meet demand.

To remedy this, the U.S. government subsidized the building of new housing developments. Due to the large and urgent need for new homes, Cape Cod homes were often chosen to fill these developments – such as the well-known Levittown suburban developments – thanks to their simple layouts and easy construction.

True to their original purposes, however, Cape Cod houses today still boast steep, side-gabled roofs that were meant to keep heavy snow from accumulating on top of the house, and low ceilings, shingle siding and window shutters to keep the elements out and the heat in.

Cape Cods may have dormer windows in the roof that indicate a loft that can either be used as a living space or for storage. These homes also tend to be pretty symmetrical, with the front door and chimney in the middle of the facade and an equal number of windows on each side.

Colonial

American Colonial Home

Colonial architecture became popular during – you guessed it – the period of European colonization of America. Early colonial home styles were heavily influenced by the country of origin of the builder and what building materials were available in a given area.

Though the basic elements are all the same – rectangular, symmetrical shape and long rows of windows – each type of colonial architecture has its own regional flavor, from the grand columns and wraparound balconies of the French colonial homes in New Orleans, to the distinctive gambrel roofs of the Dutch colonial style.

Colonial-style homes are similar to Cape Cod homes (which can be considered a sub-type of colonial architecture) with their symmetry, side gabled roofs and centered chimneys, though colonials typically feature multiple stories and a larger number of windows.

This home style made a comeback as Colonial Revival architecture, which became popular around the country’s centennial in 1876. Contemporary Colonial homes utilize the same basic elements but take advantage of modern-day building materials.

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Contemporary

Exterior of contemporary house

Contemporary architecture is a pretty broad category – it includes the styles that are popular right now. This is contrasted with modern style architecture, which was part of the larger modernist movement and is anchored to a specific period in time.

Since contemporary houses can have so many different elements and still be considered contemporary, it’s hard to give a definitive definition of exactly what a contemporary home is. However, some common elements include natural and sustainable building materials and eco-friendly components. They’re typically more asymmetrical and uniquely laid out.

Large windows that bring in ample natural light also tend to be popular, and you can expect the exterior to feature several texturally different building materials – think stucco juxtaposed with stone, or wood featured next to brick. These homes often have low-pitch or even flat roofs.

Cottage

Exterior of small cottage

First used to describe the homes of farm workers in medieval Europe, the word “cottage” tends to evoke lots of cozy feelings. But what exactly does it mean to call a home a cottage?

You can find homes of all kinds that could be considered cottages: whimsical storybook homes with stucco walls and steep, thatched roofs; cool beachside houses in fun pastel colors; or cozy brick places tucked away in snowy mountains.

Whether a house could be considered a cottage is often determined by the location and purpose of the home rather than its physical characteristics. While a small, rural dwelling that someone lives in as their primary home could be considered to be a cottage, they’re more often small vacation homes that people either rent short-term or own and live in for part of the year.

Craftsman

Exterior of craftsman home

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’ll know a Craftsman house when you see it. The Craftsman style is a staple of American residential architecture. These homes are classic yet unique and have remained popular in the U.S. throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

Craftsman architectural style came about as part of the larger Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The movement originated in England – and soon after made its way to the States – as a way of pushing back against industrialization, putting an emphasis on handcrafted goods.

A telltale sign that you’re looking at a Craftsman is if you see tapered columns supporting a roof that overhangs the front porch. Colors are natural, with wood and stone as a common element, though clapboard or shingle siding in earthy tones is common, too.

Craftsman homes are beautiful but typically not overly ornate, and put an emphasis on a practical living space, with open floor plans and built-in storage.

Farmhouse

exterior of farmhouse

When you think of a modern farmhouse, you may picture a beautiful, sprawling white house with a big wraparound porch on a large, grassy plot of land, and an interior filled with rustic decor pieces and pristine shiplap walls. However, as you might have guessed, farmhouses were not originally designed for their aesthetics.

Farmhouses, simply, were the dwellings that housed farmers on their land, and were historically built with whatever materials were available and affordable in whatever style made the most sense for the family who’d be inhabiting the home. The first farmhouses were all about practicality.

Though today you could still consider any home that exists on a farm to be a farmhouse, there are a few typical elements that you’ll see in the modern farmhouses that have grown in popularity in recent years, including large front porches, clapboard siding, large fireplaces, wood floors and big kitchen sinks.

Mediterranean

Exterior of mediterranean home

Mediterranean homes are pretty distinctive – it’s hard to confuse this style with another one. They’re popular in warmer areas, especially Florida and California. The style draws its influences from some of the early architecture of countries in the Mediterranean region, especially Spain and Italy.

In the 1920s, Mediterranean architecture experienced a revival in the U.S., thanks to Hollywood. Seeing beautiful Mediterranean homes on the silver screen, Americans wanted to live those lives of luxury themselves, and the style experienced a surge in popularity because of this.

This home style is still fairly popular in those coastal areas today, partly due to the fact that it’s so well-suited for warmer climates. Stucco walls keep the home cool, as does the signature red terra cotta roof, and the homes are often laid out in a way that maximizes air flow.

Midcentury Modern

exterior of mid century modern suburban home

Modern architecture emerged in the 1920s as a sort of rebellion against the more ornate, form-before-function design styles that had previously dominated. Modernist design put an emphasis on highly practical spaces with little decorative flair while utilizing modern materials and technology. Modern homes are minimalist and future-minded.

Midcentury modern style came out of this larger modern architecture movement, beginning after the end of World War II (thus the “midcentury” moniker) and remaining popular throughout most of the 1970s.

When you think of midcentury modern architecture, think simple shapes, clean lines and big windows. Open-concept layouts are prominent, as is combining natural and manufactured materials like wood, steel and plastic.

One of the main goals of midcentury modern architects was to remove the barrier between the indoors and outdoors. This is achieved by the characteristic floor-to-ceiling windows and incorporating natural materials like wood and stone in the interior of the home.

Neoclassical

Exterior of home

When you think of the grand, classical architecture that is typical of older university and government buildings, you’re likely picturing a quintessential example of the neoclassical architectural style.

Neoclassical architecture is a revival of classical architecture, which was the architectural style of ancient Greece and Rome. So naturally, neoclassical style incorporates lots of tall, grand-looking columns.

Neoclassical style was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and can still be found in both public and residential buildings today. These homes are majestic and stately, and can be distinguished by their towering columns and symmetrical structure.

One of the most famous examples of neoclassical architecture in the U.S. is Monticello, home of our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Ranch

Exterior of ranch style home

The ranch-style home is a classic home style in the U.S. It grew in popularity around the mid-20th century as a response to the post-war housing crisis (similar to the Cape Cod, an older style that experienced a revival during this time for the same reason), though the first ranches emerged in California in the 1930s.

According to House Beautiful, ranches are related to midcentury modern homes, which were also very popular during this time, but ranches tend to err on the side of traditional, while moderns are more, well, modern.

If it’s a short, single-story home with a low-pitched roof, it’s probably a ranch. Often, the foundation of a ranch is almost level with the ground, lending the home its signature low-profile look.

Ranch layouts tend to be fairly open and encourage outdoor living, often featuring large windows and sliding glass doors that open to a patio.

Tudor

Exterior of Tudor home

Tudor architecture has a long history. It originated during the reign of the House of Tudor, which lasted from the late 15th century to the early 17th century (though the style wasn’t popular during the entirety of the Tudor period).

The Tudor homes we see today are the result of the Tudor revival that began around the mid-19th century.

This is another unique home style; it’s fairly easy to identify a Tudor home when you see one. Tudor exteriors typically feature some combination of brick, stone or stucco walls and exposed framework on the second story of the home. They’re beautiful and stately homes, but expensive to build, which is why they aren’t as popular today.

Victorian

Exterior of large victorian home

If you’ve ever wanted to live in a dollhouse, a Victorian home is about as close as you can get.

Victorian homes became popular during the Victorian era, which marked Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 – 1901. The style has since fallen out of and back into favor, with many modern-day house hunters specifically seeking out the homes for their beauty and history.

Unlike some of the other homes on this list, Victorian homes are all about extravagance and ornament. They’re asymmetrical and utilize many different shapes in their structures. They’re often painted in bright or bold colors.

Victorians typically have multiple stories with steep roofs that include often a variety of features, including dormer windows and turrets. Their interiors have high ceilings and ample elaborate detailing.

What Is Your Ideal House Style?

Which type of home should you live in? Though you’ll be evaluating a variety of different factors during your home search, such as square footage, number of bedrooms and location, whether you like a home’s style is an important factor, too.

If you want …

A unique and beautiful home that has a distinct and memorable style.

Your ideal house style is …

Craftsman, Tudor or Mediterranean.

If you want …

An open floor plan, smart use of geometry, clean lines, natural light and functional spaces.

Your ideal house style is …

Contemporary, midcentury modern or ranch.

If you want …

An adorable and simple home with lots of opportunity to make it your own inside and out.

Your ideal house style is …

Cape Cod, farmhouse or cottage.

If you want …

An impressive and beautiful home with a historical feel.

Your ideal home style is …

Victorian, neoclassical or colonial.

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Molly Grace

Molly Grace is a staff writer focusing on mortgages, personal finance and homeownership. She has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @themollygrace.