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What is a rambler, exactly?

Brett Godfrey

Brett Godfrey is the Marketing Manager for the JanusGroup at RE/MAX Integrity, a real estate team where he crafts compelling stories that sell homes,&...

Brett Godfrey is the Marketing Manager for the JanusGroup at RE/MAX Integrity, a real estate team where he crafts compelling stories that sell homes,&...

Sep 30 4 minutes read

As an East coast native, I must admit that before moving to Seattle, I had not heard of the term "rambler house." It quickly became apparent that "rambler" is a synonym for "ranch" - aka a single story home. 

There is rampant speculation on the internet (what? never!) about the origins of the term "rambler." Let's begin with a few definitions:


1. A car manufactured by Nash Motors/AMC in Wisconsin between the years of 1950 and 1969. 

2. A person who walks for pleasure, especially in the countryside. 

3. A colloquialism in the American West that refers to a single story home. Example: "Bob and Jane recently purchased a rambler in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood."

What's the difference between a "ranch" and a "rambler" style home?

Absolutely nothing.

Where do "ramblers" come from? 

An excellent question! I pulled out my handy copy of "A Field Guide To American Houses" by Virginia & Lee McAlester (an amazing resource), and they provide these details in a section about Ranch homes circa 1935 to 1975: "The popularity of 'rambling' Ranch houses was made possible by the country's increasing dependence on the automobile. Streetcar suburbs of the late-19th and early-20th centuries still used relatively compact house forms on small lots because people walked to nearby streetcar lines. As the automobile replaced streetcars and buses as the principal means of personal transportation in the decades following World War II, compact houses could be replaced by sprawling designs on much larger lots. Never before had it been possible to be so lavish with land, and the rambling form of the Ranch house emphasizes this by maximizing facade width."

When was the first rambler built?

A bit of research lead me to a 1986 article in the New York Times by Joseph Giovannini about the originator of the ranch house, detailing that "architectural historians trace its invention to a single architect" named Clifford May. The first rambler home was built in "1931, when Mr. May - who never attended architecture school, but had designed furniture - built a one-story, tile-roofed courtyard house on speculation in San Diego, inspired by his family's own adobe ranch houses in the area." Clifford May sold the first rambler for $9,500 (that's roughly $159,000 in 2018 dollars), and within a few years he was offering "a choice between old ranch houses based on native California adobe models, and what he calls a Yankee version. Both had the same plan but the Yankee house was surfaced in board and batten: shingles rather than tiles were used for roofing."

What differentiates a rambler from other homes?

A true rambler (usually built before 1975), has the following characteristics:

  • One-story
  • L-shaped (like in the photo above) or U-shaped
  • Low-pitched roof
  • Usually built on a concrete slab or crawl space

Are all one-story homes ramblers?

By today's standards, yes. The terms "rambler" and "ranch" and "one-story home" are synonyms. You will find one-story homes that have basements marketed as ramblers, as well as homes that are marketed as "mid century modern ramblers." The term "rambler" has become a catch-all term to mean any type of home that is a single story, regardless of the year built or any other architectural features.

Where does the term "rambler" come from?

Unclear. I was unable to locate a definitive source on this. If you look at the usage of the term "rambler" vs "ranch" in books over the last 100 years, you'll see that "ranch" is five times more common

I want to buy a rambler in Seattle. Can you help me?

Absolutely! Contact us today to get the home buying process started.

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