What Is a California Split-Level Home?

Colleen Bagdon

Synonymous with the 1960s and 1970s, the California split level is a housing floor plan characterized by three levels. Sometimes confused with the “bi-level” or “raised ranch,” California split-level homes are most common in the suburban West Coast.

California splits are characterized by three levels.

The style was created by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s to create a more open floor plan while separating public living and private sleeping areas.


A true California split-level house consists of three or four levels of living space with the floor level of one part of the house about halfway between the floor and ceiling of the other half of the house. The front door typically opens up directly to the main living level where you'll usually find a living room, dining room and kitchen. The upper level is reached by a short flight of stairs and consists of bedrooms and bathrooms. By descending another short flight of stairs from the main floor, one finds the den or family room and entry to the garage, which is often level with the driveway. Some California splits feature a second lower level below the formal living room.

Differences Between California Split and Bi-Level Homes

Bi-level homes are often misclassified as California splits. California split-level homes have living room/dining room/kitchen areas on a separate level than the bedrooms and bathroom or den and garage. In a traditional bi-level home, there are only two levels (rather than three or four) with two short flights of stairs separated by a front door foyer. One short flight of stairs leads up to the top floor with the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. Another short flight of stairs leads to the lower floor, often partially below ground, that contains informal living areas and the garage.


The design of the California split level adds dimension to a flat lot. Since the main floor is about halfway above the basement, California split levels can accommodate uneven or hilly property. Because each floor has smaller square footage than a traditional bungalow or ranch, California split levels can be built on smaller pieces of land, reducing housing costs. The floor plan of a California split can also be beneficial to people with disabilities since there are fewer steps to climb between levels. Since the den or family room is below grade, there is a living area that stays cooler during hot weather.

Early History

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's original 1920s California split featured cement and textile block floors and an open floor plan that merged with the terrain. Half floors divided the living and private areas. Several of Wright's early California split levels include the Millard House in Pasadena and the Freeman House that overlooks Hollywood. Although Wright's intent was to make housing more affordable, the early California split homes were financially out of reach for most families. After World War II, there was an even larger need to build homes quickly and inexpensively to handle the large influx of servicemen returning from war. In answer to this demand, architect Bill Levitt developed the bungalow-style home, characterized by one small level, usually about 600 to 1,000 square feet with a basement or cellar.

Rise in Popularity of California Splits

However, beginning in the 1960s, needs changed. Families were becoming larger with more children. Homeowners needed more bedrooms and wanted a playroom for the kids. Families wanted a separate room to accommodate the newly popular television. There was a demand for larger but still affordable homes. Since large lots were at a premium and raised the cost of building the home, the solution was to “hacksaw” the traditional ranch-style home in the middle. The garage and bedrooms were raised above level, while the other half, featuring the entry, living room, dining room and kitchen, was lowered and the “California split” was born. California splits reached their height in popularity in the late 1960s to early 1970s and were immortalized with the "Brady Bunch" house featured in the popular television program.


With the affluence of the 1980s and 1990s, desires changed. Homeowners wanted castles leading to the rise of the “McMansions” with their sprawling square footage. The “center hall colonial” with its center entry hall and larger floors became in vogue. However, with rising housing prices at the turn of the century, newer homes became cost prohibitive causing many home buyers to look again at the less expensive pre-owned homes. Many home buyers liked the older charm of the California splits and desired to live in the more mature tree-lined neighborhoods where California splits are more common.