First-time home buyers and those new to the South Brunswick area frequently hear houses described as colonials or splits or whatever. If you are confused about those terms and are too shy to ask, here’s a quick primer on what each type is and the pros and cons of each.


The most popular style of home in the Northeast is a colonial, mainly because it offers the most space and a traditional design. A typical colonial has a main hall with a living room and dining room in the front, opposite each other. In the back of the house are the kitchen and family room, usually open to each other for convenience and entertaining. A colonial may have three or four bedrooms on the second floor, along with a main bathroom and a master bath as well.

This basic design can be expanded in many ways, with an extra study or bedroom on the main level, a separate laundry room, etc. You can recognize a colonial by its two-story front with a doorway in the center. An attached garage is usually on one side of the home, and a basement can add living and storage space below the main level.


A split-level house, or split, is marked by three separate living levels separated by short flights of stairs. Off the main entrance on the first floor is the family room, with the living room, kitchen and dining room on the second level. From there a short flight of stairs leads up to the bedrooms and main bath.

A split can have a basement, but it’s on the small side, since it’s down a short flight of stairs from the main level and under the kitchen and living room. You can tell a split from the front by noticing that the family room windows are lower than those on the opposite side of the house.

A split is desirable for those who like the idea of rooms on private levels, where one can be in the house yet away from other family members. This design was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but you won’t see any newer homes built this way.


Ranches are houses with only one level, with or without a basement. The living areas, kitchen and dining room are typically on one side of the home, with the bedrooms and baths on the other. Because all the rooms are on one level, a ranch visually appears larger inside than its square footage would suggest. And if it has a full basement, it is definitely very large compared with one in a colonial, since it is under every room in the house.

Ranches are popular for several reasons: the smaller ones are usually less expensive and use less fuel to heat and cool, while larger ones offer all the features of a two-story house without the need to climb up and down stairs. Ranch-style homes are still built today, either as custom houses or in active adult communities where stairs are not desirable.


Think of a bi-level as a ranch perched on top of its family room and garage. The typical main level has the living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and one bath. Down the split stairs are the family room, sometimes another room that can serve as a bedroom, a half bath, garage and laundry. A bi-level does not have a basement, as the garage and family room sit on a concrete slab at ground level.

Bi-levels are easily recognizable from the front, as the main entrance is halfway between the two levels of the home. The design is a compromise between living on one level as in a ranch, yet having essentially a walk-out basement with additional finished living space below. Bi-levels were popular in the era of splits, as developers would offer new homes in four configurations: colonials, splits, bi-levels or ranches. None have been built since the late 1970s.

Cape Cod

That leaves the little cape, or Cape Cod as it is formally known. A cape is a small house with a living room, dining room, kitchen and one or two bedrooms on the main level, with two additional bedrooms on the second floor. Because the second floor rooms are directly under the roof, they have slanted walls and dormers, those little nooks where windows protrude from the sides of the roof.

Cape Cods are named after the area in Massachusetts where they were common, and are an older design that offered good value for adequate living space. You can think of a cape as a baby colonial filled with lots of charm.

The selection of a home is a personal one, affected by one’s lifestyle choice and budget. Capes make wonderful starter homes, bi-levels offer a unique living space arrangement, ranches are great for those who need or prefer a stairless environment, and splits provide a way to make a house look roomier than it is. Colonials are the most versatile: a basic one hits all the right notes on a budget, while a very upscale one can run into millions of dollars worth of huge rooms and upgraded features.

And if any of those styles does not suit you, you can always hunt for a custom-built house that defies description and presents a warren of rooms and hiding places. After all, a man’s home is his castle, and I’ve seen some that take that definition quite literally.

Now that you think you have houses figured out, do you know the difference between a condo and a townhouse? The answer will make your head spin. Get the scoop here, then contact me to discuss your choices.

Bo Twerdowsky

Real estate agent, self-professed computer geek, grammar policeman, proud father of two. Opinionated, questioning, intolerant of stuffy sorts devoid of a sense of humor.