More spacious than the boxy little rambler and more affordable than the stately two-story, the split-level popped up around World War II and came to symbolize suburban life — both the good and the bad.
Now aging suburbs eager to stay competitive in a housing market where tastes are shifting back to the central city are trying to revive the reputation of the split-level — and in doing so, of suburban life itself.
Nearly two dozen Twin Cities suburbs, including Coon Rapids, Robbinsdale, Roseville and Shoreview, are pumping money into home remodeling and grant programs designed to make the split-level, as well as ramblers, more appealing.
Split-levels rank high for affordability and space but can fall flat on style, with their awkward entryways, small bedrooms and confined kitchens. So the carrot of a few thousand dollars from a city grant or low-interest loan can entice homeowners to spend tens of thousands on new kitchens, baths, porches and siding.
Empty nesters Jane and Charles Tatton, who have lived in their Coon Rapids split-level since 1975, were inspired to give it a $150,000 update after learning about their city’s grant program and getting a free architectural consult courtesy of the city.
“We did worry: ‘Are we over-improving for our area?’ ” said Jane Tatton, who said she and her husband also love the central cities and had looked at pricier housing there and in other suburbs. “[But] the architect said this is one of the nicer areas of Coon Rapids.”
They gutted their home’s top level and tore out dark kitchen cabinets, a dated bathroom, light blue carpet and popcorn ceilings. They installed a new kitchen and bathroom, hardwood floors, sleek light fixtures and six-paneled doors. They hauled away floral couches, and with the help of a designer, chose modern furnishings and bold modern art.
“I went from French provincial to midcentury modern,” Jane Tatton said. “It feels like a whole new house.”
Architect Ed Roskowinski has made his name remodeling multimillion-dollar homes around Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.
At the end of the day, he drives home to a split-level in Cottage Grove.
“It’s a less palatable style,” he acknowledged. But “the biggest thing for me is you pay less taxes and insurance,” he said. “The cost of living in the suburbs, outside of driving more, is just less.”
Also not to be underestimated is the familiarity factor, he said: “We grew up in one of those neighborhoods.”
‘Wildly popular’ incentives
In Robbinsdale, 370 homeowners have landed remodeling rebates from the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority over the past few years. The city has chipped in $358,640 for private remodels, met with $2.8 million in private homeowner investment, said Robbinsdale City Manager Marcia Glick.
“Those programs are wildly popular,” said Suzanne Snyder, director of the housing resource centers for the nonprofit Greater Metropolitan Housing Resource Corp., which administers loan and remodeling programs for about 20 Twin Cities suburbs, including Robbinsdale. “There is a public purpose involved, and that is to maintain an attractive and affordable housing stock.”
In January, Roseville lifted income restrictions on its home-remodeling loan programs and increased the amount that residents can borrow from $25,000 to $40,000, at a 3 percent interest rate. The extra dollars will help homeowners improve aging kitchens and baths, not just replace old furnaces and siding, said Jeanne Kelsey, executive director of Roseville’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Coon Rapids, where the Tattons live, just received its 100th application for its Home for Generations remodeling program, which offers residents up to $5,000 for large-scale remodeling projects of $40,000 or more. Residents are only eligible for the full amount if their renovation includes exterior work that amps up curb appeal.
About a third of Coon Rapids’ housing stock is split-levels, and about half of the grant applicants are homeowners with split-levels.
Space, but with intimacy
Paul Soenneker, a construction manager with the Greater Metropolitan Housing Resource Corp., consults with north suburban homeowners contemplating remodeling. The split-level may lack high style, but it offers space and access to suburban schools, and that often clinches the deal, he said.
“Splits are for families. You need the bedrooms for the kids,” Soenneker said. “They love their neighborhoods. They love their schools. Considering the cost of a new home, it’s more appealing to stay where they are at.”
Spending less on housing and more on experiences and relationships are core values of the millennial generation, said Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, associate professor of interior design at the University of Minnesota. The ubiquitous and cozy split-level fits that view, she said.
“We have seen a shift in the American philosophy of what family means,” she said. “Before, people wanted the huge McMansion. ... 9/11 and the recession made people rethink their priorities. ... They want to spend less money on a home and have a stronger family relationship.”
Remodeling incentives aren’t the only way middle-aged suburbs are luring young families and persuading empty nesters to stay put.
Realizing that many home buyers won’t split hairs over a dated floor plan if they’re already sold on a community, many Twin Cities suburbs are redesigning parks, building more footpaths and trying to incorporate more urban-style mixed use into their long-range plans, including shops, restaurants and apartments.
People often shop for communities first, then houses, planners say. As more suburbs focus on developing amenities, the split-level’s comeback is likely to continue.
“Making those homes work for people, keeping them and expanding on them, will be important,” said urban planner Peter Musty, who co-wrote “Split Visions: A Planbook of Remodeling Ideas for Split-Level and Split-Entry Houses.”
“There are great rays of hope in the suburbs,” Musty said. “They are trying to create sophisticated living options inside their cities.”