- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

To some, the little brick box of a house on Walden Road in Silver Spring looks like a rancher, that much-maligned and very dated style made popular by post-World War II couples who valued suburban comforts over architectural details.

To listing agent Donna Kerr, the box was a "cottage," with an open design and an "adorable interior." House hunters liked the little cottage.

After receiving multiple contracts, it sold in the summer for $370,000, almost $50,000 above the asking price.

"Its looks are so deceptive," says Ms. Kerr, founder of Pure Energy Team Realty. "People need to get over their aversion to ranchers. When we can call these houses cottages, it works."

Ranchers, or California ranch-style houses, were once the ultimate symbol of the American dream, with energy efficiency and casual living all wrapped up in a sleek, modern package. Eventually, however, the horizontal lines and low-pitched roofs, once considered stylish, became dated.

After spending decades as architectural outcasts, ranchers are enjoying a surge in popularity. In part, the trend toward one-story homes follows an aging population that is looking to settle into retirement in easy-access houses. People looking for ranchers now are the antithesis of those who are building the so-called "McMansions." Many are former West Coasters who grew up in the slab houses that were built when land was cheap. They are looking for the sturdiness and human scale of a house built midcentury.

As architect Sarah Susanka put it in her best-selling book, "The Not-So-Big House," "A house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort."

Jolly ranchers, designed with casual entertaining in mind, are comfortable above all else. They usually incorporate open spaces into their floor plans. Unlike many of the more traditionally popular Cape Cod and Colonial homes that were built in the 1930s and 1940s, many ranchers have such modern amenities as large closets and master bathrooms.

Still, many ranchers lack curb appeal. Built in the '50s when sparse landscaping was in vogue, they often come off as flat, dull and smaller than they actually are.

"There is more to ranchers than meets the eye," Ms. Kerr says. "Many buyers say 'no,' they don't want a ranch house, before they've even looked. But then they go and buy one when they find that the usability of the interior prevails over the appearance of the exterior."

Like Ms. Kerr, Annapolis resident Susan Carter doesn't call her low-lying, one-story house a rancher, either.

"I think of it as a little French cottage," says Mrs. Carter, a landscape designer, whose daughter, Robin, bought the house in 1998 for less than $200,000 after it languished in a seller's market for an entire year. While her daughter, an interior designer, brightened up the inside, Mrs. Carter went to work on the exterior, planting a low hedge of English boxwoods along the sidewalk, planting ivy borders and creating wisteria espaliers on copper pipes along the brick front. She also painted the house yellow, replaced the roof and put in a gravel driveway. When Robin got married last year, Mrs. Carter and her husband quickly bought the property. They plan to rent it out until they retire in a few years.

"I wanted something easy to take care of," says Mrs. Carter, who grew up in a farmhouse in Chevy Chase and now lives in a two-story American four-square built in 1912. "I've visited friends in ranchers, and I've always thought they were very humble houses. But I never realized how livable they are."

Livability is what convinced Maryan Elder to downsize from her Victorian in historic Annapolis to a low-slung, brick rancher in 1996.

"I just loved that I had three sides exposed to sunshine," Mrs. Elder says of the house, which was designed by an architect for its previous owner in 1956. "I had always thought my Victorian was a common house with great pretensions, but this one is really extraordinary."

Although the exterior, with its wide-open yard and willowy wrought-iron porch supports left something to be desired, Mrs. Elder had plans for dressing it up to match the more appealing interior. With the help of local architect Michael Dowling, the Elders painted the house a taupe shade, replaced the iron supports with pillars and built a Japanese arbor on one side, giving it a touch of elegance. With their friend Susan Carter's design help in the garden, the Elders installed a border of copper piping around the house that they planted in roses.

"I had walked past the house many times and always thought it looked so plain," Mrs. Elder recalls. "I just wasn't a brick rancher person."

She is, however, a "cottage" person, and that is what the house looks like now.

Although it has become popular to add second stories and punch out dormer windows to give some dimension to the rancher's flat surfaces, sometimes, Ms. Kerr says, all a rancher needs is a good paint job to increase its curb appeal. A co-worker at her Silver Spring-based firm just bought a rancher and painted the aluminum siding periwinkle.

"It makes it adorable," Ms. Kerr says.

Since buying a house is such an emotional decision, Ms. Kerr says, anything a seller can do to add warmth will pay off in the end.

"Adding paint or a portico to the entryway can really give a rancher more emotional appeal on the exterior," she says.

Although they have no intention of selling the house, the Carters have received several offers.

Mrs. Carter says she wouldn't be surprised if the house has tripled in value since her daughter bought it.

"As soon as people know what it's like inside these houses, they scoop them up," Mrs. Carter says. "It looks tiny when you just breeze by, but there is so much room."

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