Knowing the style of a home can be helpful for buying, selling, remodeling or decorating

The Washington PostJuly 13, 2013 

A ranch-style home, left, is distinctive, partly because it’s not distinctive. A colonial-revival design represents a nod to Americana.


Even if you're just curious, knowing the style of a home can be helpful for buying, selling, remodeling or decorating.

Deborah Burns, of the American Institute of Architects, said many homes have easily identifiable styles - a colonial has a symmetrical facade, a small portico and a center hall, and a bungalow has a central roof dormer and a foundation made with patterned concrete blocks. But she also cautions that not all resources offer the correct information, and not all homes have a set style. It's hardest to pin down suburban homes, she said.

"If you get into suburban home developments, I'm just not sure style was paramount in the design," Burns said.

Burns said some real estate agents will incorrectly assign a home style based on one particular element, such as the window style or roof. This is because many homes are now built in a way that mixes elements of varying styles and cannot be clearly defined.

"The homes don't necessarily conform to any single style," Burns said. "That's not to say they all don't, but most don't. A brick split-level home isn't necessarily a colonial style. I think builders felt free to borrow elements from styles they liked."

If you're curious about your home's style, Burns suggests checking town or county resources first. County and city planning departments often have guides, she said.

Burns said her go-to style reference is "What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture," by John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr. and Nancy Schwartz.

Lisa Adams of Adams Design in Washington, D.C., said a home's exterior is often a good indicator of a homeowner's taste.

"If they are design-conscious, there is a reason they've selected a house," Adams said. "Usually people are relatively consistent in their preferences. If you live in a colonial with antique furniture, that's your style."

Here are common styles, along with design suggestions from experts.


Smaller windows, a pitched roof and a front porch are characteristic of this early-20th-century style.

The interior tends to be dark because you have a front porch covering the windows, so homeowners may need extra lighting - floor lamps, recessed lighting and desk lamps.


Contemporary homes are all ceiling and glass. Contemporary homes built with large glass windows are often meant to take advantage of a good view, so it's best to choose furniture in a sleek, minimalist style, as opposed to bulky pieces that might block those views.

Furniture often has clean lines with not a lot of patterns on top of patterns.


A contemporary home is not to be confused with modern. Common in the second half of 20th century, modern homes are geometric, symmetrical and lack ornamentation.

Modern architecture has a crisp, clean and tailored feel. There is a fine line between classic modern and trendy modern.


This nationalistic design movement began in the late 1800s, when Americans celebrating the centennial felt nostalgic and patriotic. The style is formal but not stately or imposing. Colonial revival homes are usually rectangular and symmetrical, with double-hung windows and a pediment over the door or a small portico with columns.


Traditional Cape Cod homes, originating from England in the 17th century, are square, one or 1 1/2 stories, with steep, gabled roofs.

The kitchen is the focal point of many Cape Cod homes, where families would congregate around the fire to keep warm in the cold New England winters. These homes also commonly have bedrooms on the first floor. Variations often have additions that make them asymmetrical.


This style, with its origins in 18th-century Britain, is very formal and stately. Brick is the primary exterior material, with moldings for embellishment. The style gives off a feeling of security and protection, though some consider the design stuffy.


Born from a revival of medieval-era style in the 18th century, Gothic revival homes have elements that give it a "gingerbread" feel. They often have wood paneling and exposed beams and are relatively dark.

Gothic revival homes lend themselves to heavy and ornately carved furniture and dark fabrics. To lighten this style of home, it's common to paint paneling white or modify the windows and lighting to help brighten and illuminate the space.


Federal homes are intentionally extravagant. The late-18th-century style typically features a center hall, a Palladian window, an arched and columned door and a high ceiling.

Federal homes were built by those who wanted to show off their wealth, but borrowed the basic structure of a Georgian home.


These single-story homes with rectangular shape and low rooflines are sometimes considered "nondescript," with no particular character or defining features. The style is inspired by the Prairie style, but is the stripped-down version of the Prairie.

Ranch homes, first built in the 20th century, are practical for aging adults and families with young children.


The style is defined by the ornamentation of the prosperous Victorian era (mid- to late 19th century), including curved towers and spindled porches.

Victorians are decorated with pattern on pattern, texture on texture.

Some interior designers will furnish only parts of a Victorian with period pieces, considering a full home of such furnishings difficult to live in.

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