Restored or renovated ranch houses can be just stunning, but don’t expect to buy a rundown ranch and create magic with a sledgehammer and a vision—there is an art to updating them.

The trick is for the renovator to “respect the positive qualities of a ranch, so as to add to, not just alter them,” says architect and architectural historian Alan Hess, author of “Ranch House.”

Easier said than done? Read on for expert tips on how to renovate a ranch house right.


Open your kitchen, inside and out

In most ranches, the kitchen was built in the front of the house, often close to, but shut off from, the formal dining room. Katherine Ann Samon, author of “Ranch House Style,” suggests replacing a kitchen window with french doors that open to a front patio.

“It makes the room feel bigger, and you don’t have to go through the living or dining room to get to the outside,” she says. If it’s in your budget, she says, take down the separating walls and add an island.

One good thing about ranch kitchens: They were made in the era when the kitchen was starting to get larger.

“The kitchen became equal parts food prep and entertaining,” says Louis Wasserman, an architect and author of “Updating Classic America Ranches.” This means small updates are simple. “It’s pretty easy to swap out appliances and expand.”

A modernized Mamie pink bathroom

Katherine Ann Samon

A modernized Mamie pink bathroom

Add to the original beauty of the bathroom

While we know pastel bathrooms are not for everyone, and some folks would rather gut than go through a painstaking restoration, it’s not so hard to modernize what might look dated to some.

In Samon’s own “Mamie pink” bathroom, she swapped out the homely old pedestal sink with metal legs for a Martha Stewart vanity, bought at Home Depot; added a modern light fixture; and put up wallpaper from Anthropologie. It was thousands of dollars cheaper than replacing the tile and, she says, “I got so many compliments on it.”

Take original details that may seem at first like a deficit, she says, and “make them a beautiful accessory to what you’re adding.”

A cathedral ceiling in an original Cliff May ranch house
The expansive living area

Raise the ceiling to new heights

The great bulk of ranch houses were built with 8-foot ceilings, which can feel low. One solution: Add windows. Samon also suggests pushing past the drop ceiling in whatever rooms you can, especially when the result is an arched ceiling.

“That low pitch of the roof becomes an architectural focal point,” she says. She advises renovators to expose the beams and add ceiling fans.

Add out, not up

“Because ranches were low and horizontal, it meant that they could easily be added onto,” says Hess. But he has seen some slapdash second stories that look awkward and out of context.

“A lot of ranches were built without a carport or a garage; those can be turned into additional bedrooms or living spaces,” says Wasserman. “We recommend expansion horizontally rather than vertically.”

There’s a practical reason for that, too: Expanding out instead of up maintains a ranch house’s aging-in-place potential. “Usually they have one or two steps to the front door, which you can turn into a ramp,” says Wasserman. “Once you’ve done that, the house is accessible.”

Santa Fe

Get clear on your windows

While ranches were the embodiment of indoor-outdoor living, many came with small windows that, says Samon, “can make it look like a barracks.”

First, Samon suggests replacing windows with french doors in the living room, and even the bedroom, for private openings into yards or patios. “Not only does it look elegant, it breaks up the monotony of long horizontal architecture,” she says.

If your ranch came with a bow-front or bay window, especially if it looks out to the backyard, “that’s where you want to put your money,” she says.

A touch of Frank Lloyd Wright red in Saint Charles, IL
Saint Charles, IL

Elevate your entryway

A quick hit for updating your ranch house is to focus on the entryway. Many have narrow steps and a tiny landing not big enough for a chair. One of the first things Samon did was widen her front steps. “The minute you do that you’ve extended the entire feeling of the house,” she says.

The front door, she says, is the place to set the tone for your house. You might opt for Arts and Crafts oak or Frank Lloyd Wright red, depending on your plan for your home’s overall look.

Respect the context

“Ranch houses were built as entire neighborhoods,” says Hess. “We’re not just talking about an individual building.” That’s one reason he cautions against changing the fundamental shape of the ranch house. “Oftentimes I see adding big blocky second stories that harm the nature of the entire neighborhood and the unity and the attractiveness of the home.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your ranch stand out, of course, or that you can’t change the siding, or the size. But, suggests Hess, try to personalize it without disrupting the entire character of the neighborhood.

A knotty pine ranch kitchen in Elkhorn, WI
Elkhorn, WI

Give that knotty pine—and other midcentury materials—a second chance

In this age of white subway tile and bespoke wallpaper, knotty pine is hardly the wall covering of choice. But Pam Kueber, author of the blogs Retro Renovation and knotty is nice, estimates that 40% of midcentury homes, and many ranches, used knotty pine (see Betty Draper’s kitchen).

Before you rip it out, think hard. “The craftsmen do not exist today who can do that kind of work,” says Hess.

Avoid what Hess has seen all too often, “where the architect did not understand the character of the original buildings and made an awkward hybrid of new and old.”

Kitchens and bathrooms can be updated, of course, but the approach is key, says Hess.

“It needs to be done in sympathy with the original character.”