One-Story Home vs. a Two-Story Home: Which Is Better to Buy?

Both offer advantages...and disadvantages

Two Story Homes in Suburbs
••• © Big Stock Photo

Whether a one-story home is a better investment than a two-story home depends much on personal taste to a great extent, as well as on the local real estate market and that old adage: location, location, location. Two-story homes offer many benefits, but there are also inherent drawbacks to them...and to one-story homes as well. Consider these factors if you're pressed to make a choice.

The Yard of a One-Story Home Might Be Smaller

When all homes on a city block have lot sizes of 40 feet wide by 80 feet deep, this equals square footage of only 3,200 square feet per lot. Some city codes might allocate a small percentage of that .07-acre lot size to a structure. If the city code says a building cannot occupy more than 40 percent of a lot, the footprint of your home could not exceed 1,280 square feet in this case.

This means that the single-level homes in this neighborhood will have a maximum square footage of 1,280, while a two-story home could be twice that size, or 2,560 square feet. A one-story home is often priced more per square foot than a two-story for this reason.

You might also find that a one-story home takes up more of a lot than a multiple-level home. Builders might make the foundation 900 square feet for a three-story home, which would increase the usable space in a 3,200-square-foot yard. A foundation of 900 square feet would utilize about 28 percent of the lot versus 40 percent.

People with families who want bigger yards would tend to gravitate toward a three-story home and the larger square footage of 2,700 square feet.

Sound Can Travel Between Floors

Some contractors say that joists should be spaced 12 inches apart on a second level to reduce squeaks and sounds from the floor. The older the home, the further apart the joists typically are. But, to be fair, the span of the joints is usually larger in an older home.

If a bedroom is located directly over a family room, the sound from a television might easily travel to the second floor at night. This would make it difficult for a person who is trying to sleep in that bedroom while another person watches TV in the family room downstairs. And you might be tired of listening to sounds traveling through the floors and walls if you're a first-time home buyer who's been renting for years.

In Case of Emergency

Unfortunately, natural disasters—and some manmade disasters such as fires—do happen. This can be a primary consideration depending on your location. You might have to think about the possibility of tornadoes in the Midwest, tidal flooding on the Eastern seaboard, or earthquakes in California.

In any case, you'll want to be able to evacuate your home quickly and efficiently under the worst circumstances, maybe even while you're still half asleep. This tends to be easier in a one-story dwelling.

It might not be a consideration if your area isn't prone to any specific weather-related hazard, but otherwise, you might want to avoid multiple floors that can collapse on those downstairs before you can evacuate...no matter that you've been promised that they've been upgraded or constructed to code in order to deal with this issue.

Security Issues

A two-story or multiple-story home wins in this category. Let's say that it's spring or autumn. You've left your windows open for a little fresh air circulation as the heat ratchets up or winds down. You refuse to go to the expense of turning on the A/C or the heat quite yet before the season fully turns.

These windows are vulnerable to entry by thieves, and they're all going to be on the ground floor, easily accessible, if you purchase a one-story dwelling. Two-story homes often provide an additional layer of security, even if you have an alarm system. What thief is going to put a ladder up to that open upstairs bedroom window without neighbors or someone noticing?

Stairs Can Be Dangerous, Cumbersome, or Inconvenient

Many homes in an senior living communities are single levels for a reason. It becomes more difficult for people to climb stairs as they age. Knee problems, hip problems, or even simple aches and pains can make it almost impossible for some older people to easily negotiate stairs. In fact, some new home communities have begun incorporating elevators into their construction because they want to attract an aging population.

People with young children aren't big fans of stairs, either. It's far too easy for a child to slip and fall down a staircase. Many parents install gates at the top and at the bottom of stairs to prevent their children from using the stairs at all, but that doesn't always stop curious children.

The staircase, treads, risers, and landing can take up valuable space inside a home as well, depending on the layout of the house. It's estimated that a single stairway can rob you of 100 square feet of living space.

It can also be a lot of work to run up and down stairs all day. You might have to go all the way downstairs to reach the kitchen instead of walking a short distance down a hall if you want a drink of water. Carrying laundry up and down the stairs is a hassle, too, so note where the laundry room is located in a two-story home versus the bedrooms before you buy.

I See You...

Bedrooms on a second or third floor offer a degree of privacy that one-story residences simply can't provide. Depending on where your windows are located, forgetting to draw the blinds or drop your curtains in a one-story dwelling can mean that your entire neighborhood is privy to what you're doing in that room.

And this isn't even to mention the mail carrier or the overnight delivery service, or even drivers of cars passing by.

It's Not Over After Your Purchase

Buying a home is the starting point for years of maintenance. This ongoing responsibility—and the costs associated with it—are typically easier and less pricey with one-story residences.

Everything from plumbing and heating repairs to exterior work and spring cleaning is all localized. Scaffolding isn't necessary. Nor are two vacuums, one for the upper floor and one for the lower floor, unless you want to regularly drag the cleaner up the stairs to spiff up your carpeting on the second or third floor.

It's also more cost efficient to air condition or heat just one floor. Ongoing utility costs can be a primary consideration if you're on a tight or even somewhat constricted budget.

Still, It's About Personal Taste

​Personal taste will inevitably win when you're deciding to buy a single story or a two-story home. In most suburban areas, a one-story home is often prized and might sell faster than a two-story home in a suburban area, while people generally prefer two-story homes in older city neighborhoods.

But here's one caveat you'll want to remember: Do not buy a one-story home that is surrounded by two-story homes. You might run into resale issues.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.