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Expanding a One-Story House: Build a Second Story or a First-Floor Addition?

You’re expanding your home, but should you build up or out? Enlarge the footprint of your single-story residence or add a second floor? Before you call in the architect, here’s what you need to consider.
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Julie Languille and her husband, Larry, love everything about their 1,200-square foot home on Whidbey Island, Wash.—everything, that is, but the size. The Languilles are members of the sandwich generation, simultaneously caring for their 9-year-old daughter and Julie’s parents. Their existing cottage, originally built as a fishing shack, was no longer big enough to meet the demands of their

The new foundation for the Languille family's expanded single-story home in Whidbey Island, Wash. Credit: Larry Languille
The new foundation for the Languille family's expanded single-story home in Whidbey Island, Wash. Credit: Larry Languille

Expanding their home out, rather than up, was an easy decision. They had the land. The house sits on two acres, easily accommodating plans to enlarge the home to nearly triple its size: 3,400 square feet. But it was more than just that. “A single story is accessible to my disabled mother and still makes it possible to keep tabs on my daughter,” Julie says. “I’m in my 40s and my husband is in his 50s and we wanted to age in place. The home will stay functional for us much longer if we don’t have to navigate stairs.” There was one more reason for expanding out. “With a single story, we were able to configure the home to maximize natural light, which is important here in the Pacific Northwest.”

Over on the opposite coast, Beth Butler’s decision on which way to expand her home was a little more difficult. When she and her husband, Dennis, learned they were expecting a third child, they agreed they would “expand on our existing piece of paradise” in Tampa, Fla. They just weren’t sure how. “My mom kept suggesting going up and my husband kept insisting going out,” Beth says. “Mom won—as we moms so often do—and we love, love, love it.”

Their four-bedroom, 1,860-square foot ranch is now a spacious six-bedroom, 2,400-square foot, two-story residence with lake views and a great vantage point for the Fourth of July fireworks.

Getting Started
Your local municipality may have the final say in any expansion plans. Check with government offices to find out about zoning and setback restrictions before you make too many plans. In addition, some homeowners associations have guidelines that must be followed in order to keep neighborhood streetscapes conforming. Also, if you live in a historic district or historic home, you may have additional restrictions. (For more information on renovating a historic home, see “Renovating Historic Homes.” The sidebar entitled “Resources for Historic Renovation Projects contains helpful links to resources specializing in these remodels. Also, see "Preserving Your Home’s Original Style during a Renovation"
for ways to preserve the integrity of a home's original architectural style during a renovation.)

Even if you’re not limited by local restrictions, it’s wise to adopt a good-neighbor policy. You may be able to go up but at what cost? Will it destroy your neighbor’s view or privacy—and possibly your relationship? Butler says she “really kept the neighbors in mind” when planning her expansion. A side window that might ordinarily have looked out over the neighbor’s pool and hot tub was changed to a skylight instead. “We were very cognizant of our neighbor’s lot line and privacy.”

Weighing the Options
Aesthetics play a critical role in any major expansion. Many ranches are expanded stealthily into the backyard, so there’s no change to the façade. A second story, however, can dramatically change the look of the home. For a

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