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Horizontal, vertical housing options serve differing needs

February 07, 2009

Their daughter was still a preschooler when Barry Nystedt and his wife vowed to leave the cramped, 1,200-square-foot house where they'd lived for years. They wanted a larger space where their child could thrive, as well as a neighborhood with a top-rated elementary school.

But during their house hunt, Nystedt and his wife were conflicted about one key issue: Should they buy another ranch-style house or purchase a two-story traditional?

A veteran real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org), Nystedt could see pros and cons for both horizontal and vertical living. Those who choose vertical living enjoy the privacy of upstairs bedrooms to get away from the common areas where family life and entertaining occur. But one-level houses are especially appealing to older people who have problems scaling stairs, or think they soon will.

"Whether you choose a horizontal or vertical home, make sure you have a five-to-10 year horizon on your future housing needs," says Nystedt, who chose a traditional two-story property.

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Here are several pointers for home buyers:

Plan for your children at later ages.

In thinking about their housing needs, many people fail to consider how quickly their children will grow, according to Don Metz, an architect who's designed hundreds of custom homes during his career.

When their children are young, many parents feel a sense of comfort at having the kids' bedrooms very close to their own. Yet as the children grow, they want more separate quarters.

If your children are now infants or preschoolers, Metz recommends you factor in their housing needs through elementary school. Or, if you intend to stay in the house for a lengthy time, look for the home configuration that will work best for you through their high school years.

Many people with pre-teen or teen children at home prefer a one-level house with the kids' bedrooms on the opposite end from the master suite. Alternatively, you could find a relatively large two-story house that clusters the kids' bedrooms some distance from the master suite on the second floor.

Look ahead to your plans as empty nesters.

Are you the parents of grown children who already have offspring of their own? If so, you'll want to factor this in when considering whether to buy a one- or two-story house, says Metz, author of "Confessions of a Country Architect."

Most empty nesters relish overnight visits involving their children and grandchildren. But most also wish that the kids could stay in a separate section of the house, especially if the grandkids are young and rambunctious.

Many couples with grown children prefer a sprawling single-level ranch house with a guest suite for visiting family members on one end of the property. But as Metz notes, you might be able to find the same sort of accommodations in a two-level house, such as a guest apartment built over the garage or a separate first-floor master suite.

Consider the pros and cons of living with a staircase in your house.

Dick Meyer, a 70-year-old consumer advocate who sells real estate in the area around Harvard University, says that climbing the stairs in his three-story house has helped him stay physically fit.

Though some people with physical limitations start having problems with stairs before they hit age 50, others do well for decades longer, Meyer says.

If your strong preference is for a traditional house with the privacy of upstairs bedrooms, don't rule that choice out on the basis of your age alone, so long as your fitness level is high, Metz says.

Obviously, there are some downsides to living on more than a single level. One is that many items need to be carted up or downstairs often, which can be inconvenient.

It's also more difficult to keep a vertical house clean. But as Metz says, you can partially offset this inconvenience by storing a vacuum cleaner and a set of cleaning supplies on each level of your place.

To contact Ellen James Martin, e-mail her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com. Copyright 2009 Ellen James Martin.

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