Writing about types of homes

There are so many different types of homes, representing an infinite world of possibilities for your characters. In addition to choosing the right one(s) for your story, it’s also very important to know what exactly they look like. I regret I didn’t describe my characters’ homes in much detail until very recently, but now I know better.

One need not go into elaborate, blow-by-blow detail about floor plans, façades, apartment lobbies, and interior decoration, but it’s helpful to give enough grounding details for readers to mentally picture these places. If a writer has an inaccurate mental picture of, e.g., a NYC townhouse or a Gilded Age estate, it’ll be described all wrong.

Brownstone houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many people use the words brownstone, townhouse, and rowhouse to refer to differ things, though they’re one and the same. A rowhouse (called a terraced house outside the U.S.) is just a house that shares walls with other houses. It can be a humble proletarian abode or built as a mansion for the city’s élite. Depending on the city’s density, it can be wide or narrow.

Brownstone is a type of material, most popular in the Eastern U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some townhouses and rowhouses are brick, limestone, or wood. In Chicago, greystone was the material of choice. Many homes in southern and northwestern Brooklyn also are greystone. Sometimes these houses are painted.

Despite its popularity, brownstone isn’t the greatest building material. It was ubiquitous because of its ease of quarrying and carving.

Houses in Chicago’s Washington Square, Copyright Michael

These houses range from three to six floors, often including a cellar and garden level. The parlor level is technically the second floor. Because many of these homes were built in the era of horse-drawn vehicles, manure was a huge problem. The refined people living in these homes couldn’t have their entry-level floor at street level!

Some were built as mansions for the wealthy, who usually had second, much more sprawling and grandiose homes in the country or by the shore. Others were intended for proletarian and bourgeois families, sometimes split into duplexes or triplexes, or one apartment per each floor.

These are the kinds of homes the élite of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities lived in before apartments became popular. By the 1920s, townhouses had fallen from fashion.

Houses in Baltimore’s Federal Hill

On average, they’re about 18-20 feet wide. In very densely-populated cities, it’s uncommon to find ones 25 feet or wider. Most were destroyed to make room for apartments or roads. Some houses are also much narrower.

Every so often, one encounters a townhouse attached to a former stable or carriage house, or with such an edifice standing next door or behind the house. This can be used as a garage, a precious commodity in a city, or converted into a small business.

Depth is about 100 feet, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more. The homes built for the wealthy have backyards (albeit usually fairly small). Some houses have their yards joined into one great big communal yard, with things like a garden, playground, and skating rink in winter.

Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Many older cities have mews lanes, former carriage houses and stables with living quarters above. Some may have cellars added in the modern era. These are very desirable because they’re on private, often gated alleys, with parking and courtyards. They’re also much wider than the average rowhouse.

As beautiful and historied as these homes can be, it’s easy to see why they became unfashionable and undesirable once luxury apartments appeared.

The Beresford on Central Park West, Copyright David Shankbone

Prewar apartments are highly sought-after, and most associated with NYC. Many are now co-ops. Not only are they more beautiful and unique, inside and out, than postwar architecture, they’re also much better constructed.

These apartments are known for spacious rooms, many big closets, multiple fireplaces, gorgeous details, lovely courtyards (essential for providing light and ventilation), hardwood floors, generous floor plans, kitchens located away from the other rooms, sunken living rooms, thick walls, wide halls, and high ceilings.

Some smaller buildings only have two (very spacious) units per floor. On average, most have about 12-25 stories, though there are some with as few as six.

The more exclusive buildings offer penthouses and duplexes.

Speaking of duplexes, that type of dwelling varies depending on the city or country. In very large, dense U.S. cities, and throughout the U.K., a duplex is a two-floor home, not a house with side-by-side units. A triplex is a three-floor unit.

Some people who live in townhouses rent out the lower two floors as a duplex, or rent a single floor, either for extra income or because they don’t need all that space for themselves.

Lower East Side tenements

Many tenements are in rowhouses, and, particularly in San Francisco and NYC, are railroad-style (e.g., each room connected to the other in a line, like a shotgun house). In the old days, there were often businesses on the first floor. Many only had 2-3 small rooms and no bathroom or running water. On average, they were about 350 square feet.

New Law tenements, built in the U.S. from 1901 on, introduced greater ventilation, light, plumbing, windows, fire safety, and running water. Some also had more square footage and rooms, though they were a far cry from the glamourous prewar apartments.

Olana State Historic Site, Greenpoint, NY

We all know what a mansion or estate is, at least 3,000 square feet, often with many acres for gardens, ponds, trees, outdoor theatres, miniature zoos, and brindle paths. In the Gilded Age, they were particularly decadent, designed to show off wealth, with far more space than even a very large family with many servants needed.

They had as many as ten bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, ballrooms, pantries, sculleries, smoking rooms, billiard rooms, music rooms, sewing rooms, anterooms, dressing rooms, solaria, servants’ wings, kitchens, dining rooms, libraries, parlors, and bathrooms. There were also guesthouses and carriage houses.

How to use real estate ads for research

One of the many mistakes I made while researching and writing my abandoned storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in 1952 was reading current real estate ads for historic properties as though they’d always been that way. Regardless of which city, era, or type of housing you’re writing about, you should never assume a house or apartment is completely unchanged from the day of its creation.

So you go to a site like Zillow, choose the neighborhood or street you’re researching, plug in age range (e.g., 1880–1930), square footage, number of bedrooms, and style (condo, townhouse, apartment, detached house). You read the descriptions and look at the photos and floor plans, and start basing your fictional homes on your favorites.

Except you may be barking up the completely wrong tree.

Yes, that home physically existed in that year, but it may have looked a lot different. If it’s in a major city (e.g., NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore), and your story is set anytime from the Depression through these cities’ nadirs in the Seventies and Eighties, odds are it wasn’t used as a single-family home and was a lot smaller.

Unless one were lucky enough to already own one’s home and have fully paid it off, the Stock Market crash forced many people into new dwellings. They could no longer afford rent on luxury apartments or upkeep of rambling estates. Many townhouses and rowhouses were split up into duplexes, triplexes, and SROs.

Some townhouses had as many as 29 SRO apartments!

Others were split up in response to the severe housing crisis following WWII. Many large apartments were also chopped up into smaller units, and some tenants were pressured or outright forced into moving or accepting the decreased square footage of their homes.

Likewise, many estates in cities like St. Paul and San Francisco were used as boardinghouses and apartments. People were able to get them for free or cheap, but had a lot of work to do fixing them up.

The same went for townhouses which escaped the division into SROs, duplexes, and triplexes.

And speaking of townhouses and rowhouses, many had entry floor businesses (restaurants, shoe stores, bookstores, candy stores, business classes, photography studios, florist shops, etc.). Even if a single family owned the property, they may not have had residence on every floor.

Many amenities featured in modern apartments and condos didn’t exist until very recently. It’s one thing to create a fictional building with a pool, gorgeous courtyard, a few upscale businesses on the lower floors, and maid service, but things like dog parks, communal treehouses, Yoga studios, and bowling alleys wouldn’t have existed in all but the most contemporary hist-fic.

The above is from 1936, so it’s not entirely implausible for your characters to be well-off during the Depression and have a luxury home. However, that wasn’t very common. Not much new housing was built after the Stock Market crash, and an architect or realtor in touch with reality wouldn’t have built, developed, or marketed such upscale housing.

The former hotel being refurbished into condos in all but name, an urban kibbutz of sorts for an unrealistic amount of my characters to all conveniently live in, was beyond unrealistic. People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split up into SROs.

Forget about terraces, a three-story penthouse, sprawling apartments, a steamroom, indoor pool, libraries on every floor, and private-entry elevators! Those would’ve been added decades later, not during such a severe housing crisis.

Co-ops were uncommon until the Sixties, and condos didn’t exist in the U.S. till about the same time. However, some luxury apartments called it even after a certain amount of years paying rent, and became condos in all but name.

Obviously, things like air conditioning, central heating, and electricity were added at much later dates, but those generally aren’t the only changes. Wine cellars, wet bars, private gyms, spa rooms, I’m looking at you! Elevators are also almost certainly very recent additions.

And if that house was built before 1950, you know it wouldn’t have been a tacky open concept originally!

It’s fine to use modern real estate ads as a jumping-off point for creating your own fictional homes, but it’s also important to look up vintage ads.

You also want to look up the average home and rent prices in that area in that era. Plugging modern numbers into an inflation calculator won’t give an accurate price, since the cost of living has gone WAY up over the last few decades.

Housing and characters should complement one another

Just as it’s most vitally important to choose the right setting for your story, it’s also important to choose the right type of housing for your characters. One of the many reasons my storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC failed was because it never advanced beyond liking the idea of them living in a beautiful old townhouse or luxury apartment. It never took into account where they truly most belong.

You can want to write about, e.g., 16th century London, 1750s Prague, 1840s Boston, 1880s Manhattan, 1920s Paris, or 1960s San Francisco all you want, but that won’t mean anything if it never develops beyond an abstract idea and doesn’t naturally fit with the characters.

Think about who your characters truly are, not how you’re forcing them to be. While they’ll of course go whichever way you dictate, you may eventually discover you chose the wrong path. If this happens several books into a series instead of while writing a standalone or first book in a series, you need to work with what you already have instead of lighting everything on fire and potentially creating even more mistakes.

It’s the same as with any other storyline you discover naturally taking another path, like a character meeting the perfect future spouse well before you planned for her/him to meet an entirely different partner. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Think about who your characters are, really are, not just how you’d like them to be. Growing up in a certain type of home creates a certain state of mind. There are distinct differences between the following kinds of people:

A proletarian with deep roots in a major metropolis, who grew up playing on sidewalks, going to public parks for green spaces, stoop-sitting and people-watching, living in a modest walk-up apartment and not knowing anyone with a private house.

An old money family with lots of kids, living in a 6,000-square foot estate where all the space is made perfect use of instead of being for grandiose show. Their property includes many acres of gardens, trees, brindle paths, and fishponds.

A wealthy family with a 3,000-square foot duplex apartment in the big city, complete with a doorman, elevator operator, several servants, and amenities like a sauna, pool, and exclusive restaurants. They also have a summer home by the seashore.

A lower-middle-class family with a charming bungalow in a sleepy small town.

A humble farming family living nowhere near even a smaller town, with a self-sufficient existence.

A newlywed couple in a 100-year-old Tudor Revival house in a thriving artists’ colony in a very old suburb of a major city, so established it’s become its own city.

A bourgeois family in a brand-new housing development in a suburb 30 miles from the nearest large city.

An aristocratic family with several estates, a townhouse, a yacht, and a few pied à terres.

Members of a reigning family, rather far down the line of succession, with a palace and summer villa considered modest by royal standards.

The ruling branch of said family, who spends the year moving between five different palaces, a yacht, royal relatives’ palaces in other countries, a summer villa, and a hunting lodge.

If you put any of them in a place they’re not accustomed to, it won’t go well. A rich socialite who thrives on apartment life and her second home in the Hamptons will be like a fish out of water in a humble 900-square foot bungalow in a small town in Iowa, just as a third-generation farmer will be very discombobulated if relocated to a grand palace with servants catering to his every need.

Are your characters artists? Intellectuals? Small business owners? What socioeconomic class are they? How about hobbies and personalities? Do they crave privacy, or do they thrive on social life and constant action? Are they passionate about gardening? Do they have any pets? Are any of those pets livestock?

Someone who’s been taken away from their accustomed setting may eventually get used to the new setting. Others may accept it as part of a radical move (e.g., going on the Oregon Trail or immigrating to a new country), but eventually feel more and more of a calling back to the familiar. Still others may never be happy about it.

For some people, a bungalow or 600-square foot condo is the perfect home, while others feel more at home in an old stone cottage or sprawling estate. It’s all down to the individual.

A glorified tenement isn’t a house

With the obvious exception of mansions and luxury apartments, homes in prior generations were by and large much smaller than today. Even the “big” suburban houses so many people eagerly upgraded to after WWII were quite small by modern standards, often under 1,000 square feet.

It’s also true that people tended to have less stuff, and since smaller homes were the norm, they didn’t think to feel deprived and cramped. However, that didn’t mean the average person eagerly, deliberately sought out a tiny abode, let alone tried to dress it up as luxurious and “a little bit TOO big!”

It’s human nature to want a bigger space to live in, not something under 300 square feet. Even U.S. Old Law tenements weren’t that tiny! While there are some super-minimalists for whom a tiny house is the perfect abode, most people are only going tiny because it’s trendy, and won’t be happy there longterm. Many people have already ditched their tiny houses for normal-sized dwellings!

Single people and childless couples both committed to this lifestyle are one thing, but it really makes me angry to see families on these tiny house shows. Dollars to doughnuts those kids won’t be gushing all over the stateroom from A Night at the Opera as so cute, cool, and “a little bit TOO big!” for very long. It’s downright cruel for these parents to make their kids give up most of their toys so they can move to a 250-square foot “luxury house.”

How can you hold a birthday party or have all your friends over when you live in the Woke version of a trailer? What about privacy from your parents and siblings, particularly in the teenage years? Everything is everyone’s business by default, since you’re constantly in that cramped space with your family!

And how about hobbies? Say goodbye to a dedicated space to store your collections, work on flower-pressing, have a woodworking workshop, create a darkroom to develop photos, keep your scrapbooking supplies. Serious artists also will be cheated of studios, and forget about having most pets. There’s no space.

Bibliophiles and art collectors will be forced to give away almost everything in their precious inventories, carefully cultivated for so many years. Space-saving storage hacks can’t hold a thousand books or hundreds of paintings.

One of these smug tiny couples had a cat who looked downright pissed as s/he climbed down the ladder from the loft bedroom. Cats are very good BS detectors, and this one wasn’t having any of it. I hope that cat ran away and found owners with a normal-sized home.

Families need room to stretch out and have space from one another. There’s a lot of happy medium between McMansions in excess of 3,000 square feet and tiny houses.

One of the many reasons for the post-WWII suburban boom was that people just wanted more space to raise their growing families! They were overjoyed to leave cramped city apartments and rowhouses for detached houses all their own.

Yes, many people lived in smaller quarters in the past and made it work, but they didn’t live like that by choice. For every family who truly wanted to stay in an unslummed slum and invest beaucoup bucks into fixing up an old rowhouse or moving into a larger apartment, many more hightailed it out at the first opportunity.

And did I mention many of these tiny homes have toilets that need to be manually emptied? Not to mention mite-sized bathrooms and low-ceilinged loft bedrooms only accessible by ladders. A house should not require Houdini-like magic tricks to hide the furniture when it’s not in use, nor should stairs, chairs, and benches double as storage!

If these people truly want to experience super-minimalist living, they should move to a city with microapartments. But of course, then they wouldn’t get to have such smug attitudes about how awesome they are.

Many tiny houses look great on the outside, and do have ingenious uses of space, but they’re just not well-suited to longterm living by the majority of people.

Why I loathe open concepts

I well and truly cannot understand why HGTV pushes open concept houses so heavily. Unless they’re laid out in the right way, living in one is an absolute nightmare.

I’ve been in many houses and apartments with semi-open concepts I had no problem with, and seen others I like on video tours. What makes them different and better than the magnified studio apartment style so in vogue now is the floor plan.

A home with an L or U shape has rooms located off of halls, or an enfilade-style arrangement where all the common, public rooms lead into one another through archways, pocket doors, or partial walls.

Copyright The Fixers; Source Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Likewise with townhouses in many large cities, which are narrow and deep by necessity. While the upper floors have rooms located off the hallway, the parlor floor tends to have common rooms leading into one another. Sometimes there are doors; other times there are archways designating each room.

But what I can’t tolerate is a square-shaped open concept house!

Why do I hate this style? Let me count the ways.

1. Walls and doors exist for a reason. They designate each room for a separate purpose, and ensure privacy, peace, and quiet.

2. Not as much space to hang pictures, put up bookshelves, and store things.

3. The lack of walls also equals poor temperature control. In the summer, it’s much hotter. In winter, it’s unbearably cold.

4. Did I mention no privacy? These houses seem designed for joined at the hip families who are constantly together, never doing anything in separate rooms.

5. Someone at the door can automatically see into the entire house!

6. Absolutely atrocious acoustics! You want to watch TV, read a book, or do anything in the living room? Not if people are in another “room” all of ten feet away or right up the stairs! Everything is magnified like a tsunami of unbearable noise—speech, running water, the other TV, kitchen appliances, aluminum foil, drawers being opened and closed, rattling utensils, the ice machine.

7. It feels like being in a gymnasium.

8. There’s a reason studio and efficiency apartments are only meant for one person or couples just starting out. Why increase the square footage of that floor plan for an entire house?

9. Read any old book or historical novel, or watch any film from before about 1950 or historical drama. You’ll see rooms located off halls or a main common room (usually the parlor), not one giant open space trying to be multiple rooms at once. It was particularly important for the kitchen to be located well away from the main rooms and to have a door.

10. Speaking of the kitchen, do you really want guests to see drying or dirty dishes stacked up 10-20 feet away, to smell food all over the house, or to watch you preparing food?

11. You’re constantly all up in everyone’s business by default of having no place to retreat to.

12. Less flexibility for converting rooms to other uses. 

13. They just look cheap and emotionally sterile!

14. Many people are so enamoured of open concepts they gleefully tear down walls and rip off doors in old houses.

15. Since everyone can see everything from any vantage point, it necessitates more frequent cleaning to avoid messes.

16. It just doesn’t feel like a real house!

17. They’re a terrible fit for those of us who love vintage interior decoration and furniture.

Walls and doors will be mandatory in my next home. I’ll specify I only want to see pre-1950 houses, and if a contemporary house is all I can afford, I’ll save up to install walls and doors as soon as possible. Open concepts are truly an architectural abomination, no matter how heavily HGTV pushes them.