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The Pros and Cons of Single-Story and Multi-Level Homes

Single-level ranch or multi-level manse: Which one suits your family? We weigh the pros and cons.

Written by Janice Brewster
 Photo: Heidi Long
When you’re building a custom log or timber home, one of the first decisions you’ll make is whether your home will have a single-story design or one that’s multi-level. For some folks, it’s an easy choice; but for others, weighing the pros and cons is a valuable exercise.
So, will you build “up” or will you venture “out”? Here are some factors to consider:

Start with the Bottom Line

Think about the average 2,500-square-foot home. If it’s all on one level, it’s going to require more excavation, a larger foundation and more roofing structure and materials. Stacking that same square footage on multiple levels gives the home a smaller footprint and less roof area to construct and maintain.
So how much more will it cost to spread out over a single floor? “Expect to pay about 10 percent more per square foot,” estimates Levi Hochstetler of Hochstetler Log Homes in Loudonville, Ohio. That extra cost also would account for slightly larger HVAC units and longer runs for plumbing and ductwork.
One way to trim the cost of a single-floor home could be to consider building on a slab, suggests Pam Kimball, project steward at Bensonwood, a timber and custom home producer in Walpole, New Hampshire. Besides saving on excavation and foundation costs, Pam suggests it could be the best strategy in areas with high ground water. “Heating, cooling and ventilation equipment has become more efficient and also smaller in size,” she explains, “so you can build this equipment in dedicated closet spaces or above dropped ceilings and avoid having a basement altogether.”
Consider this: In a single-story home, you might be able to get by with fewer bathrooms (resulting in reduced cost for labor and materials), since those located near bedrooms could be easy to access from main living areas. You also could combine the laundry space with a mudroom, since you wouldn’t have to worry about putting the laundry near upstairs bedrooms for easy access. 
Convenience aside, Bensonwood estimates that building a multi-level home may take more time. How the height of your home would affect your particular project’s construction schedule would be something to discuss with your builder.

Looking Good

The style of the home you’re hoping for may sway your decision to build on a single versus multiple levels. If you have an appreciation for both, it also may make your choice that much tougher. Levi suggests splitting the difference: “A log home favors a story and a half,” he says, especially when using round logs with  saddle notches. With a story-and-a-half design, you can have full log walls on the first floor and possibly in gable walls on the second floor. Dormered roof lines add extra head room in the loft area. As you look closely at photos of log homes you find appealing, you might start to see the allure of the story-and-a-half option.
Some architectural designs, like the traditional Colonial style, call for two stories, according to Levi. “This style makes sense for a classic timber frame, as well as a home built with squared logs finished with bands of chinking,” he says. Bensonwood notes that a two-story home also may provide more opportunities for adding porches, decks or balconies during the initial design phase or in the future.
In general, a single-story home is more conducive to adding skylights, but both single and multi-level homes can include spaces with vaulted ceilings. These soaring rooms are a favorite with log and timber home lovers who like the look of ceilings with exposed beams or wood trusses. In a story-and-a-half layout, the second floor typically has sloped ceilings.

Consider Your Lifestyle

How you want to live now and in the long run could help you make this big decision. “If this is a retirement home, by all means go with single story; if it’s not, it’s not as critical,” Levi advises. Stairs are a barrier for anyone with limited mobility, whatever their age, and they consume a great deal of square footage — space that may be better utilized elsewhere.
Having a second floor doesn’t have to preclude the idea of “aging in place,” reminds Pam. “You can design a home so that there is a first-floor master bedroom and full bathroom on the main level along with primary living spaces including the kitchen, dining, and living room,” she says. “Another way to plan ahead is to make space for an elevator at some point. “The design can include a stacked closet space that can be converted into an elevator in the future.”
But aging in place isn’t the only lifestyle factor to consider. For instance families who want to keep bedrooms separate from communal areas might lean toward a multi-level design. Those who work from home may find that a single-level floor plan provides distance between their residence and their office, improving their work/life balance.
Your preferred location also could steer you in one direction or another. If you’re building on a narrow lot or hoping to capture an expansive view, a home with at least two floors could be ideal. Pam suggests that sloped sites, where there’s at least a 4- to 6-foot difference in height from the front of the house to the back, lend themselves to homes with walk-out lower levels, efficiently increasing square footage. “If site and building configuration permit a taller ceiling height along with windows on two sides,” she says, “then the increased daylight can keep that level from feeling like a basement.”

Return on Investment

You can rest assured that both log and timber home construction work well for either single or multi-level homes. Will going with one over the other make a difference in the long-term value of your house? It could depend on your area. If there’s an influx of retirees or other people looking for single-level living, you might be wise to go that route. But, as a general rule of thumb, Pam says re-sale value depends more on the square footage, number of bedrooms and baths, location and other amenities than the height of your home. 
As you navigate the design phase, talk the matter over with your family. Visit model homes, if possible, to see various designs firsthand and let your site’s topography help you decide if you’re going up or out.

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