Real Estate

Circa 1980: What Real Estate Agents Need To Know About ’80s Housing Styles

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American housing styles have changed, and continue to change, throughout the country and as homeowners’ tastes and lifestyles have evolved. As the country has undergone industrial and economic changes, both good and not so good, housing styles have adapted out of necessity.  

In this new series, I will walk you through the predominant housing styles of the past 12 decades, beginning in 1900. A basic understanding of each architectural style that defines a decade will position you as a knowledgeable agent with your clients and make searching for a home with your buyers easier for everyone.

Agents who can recognize housing styles and periods have access to a vocabulary that will enable efficient communication with their buyers and sellers. Residential architecture has become less distinctive over the decades, with a few exceptions.

Building booms are less frequent and homogenous developments with only a handful of styles have been replaced with customized houses. Builders and developers offer homebuyers the option to select customized features for their homes. Some of these houses are well-thought-out and cohesive and some are a jumble of design elements.

The 1980s were a decade of success, excess and flashy expenditures of money in almost all areas of society. Conspicuous consumption was admired and something homeowners aspired to and eagerly sought.

Home sweet home

After the natural tones of the 1970s, an Italian design movement named “Memphis” burst onto the home furnishings and design scene with bright primary colors, patterns such as checkerboards, and whimsical furniture and design elements.

The other significant architectural trend was Postmodernism. Pastels, classical arches, columns, moldings and stonework details were applied to exteriors using pastel colors and exaggerated style elements. Playful, whimsical and abstract design elements characterize the Postmodern style.

While examples of Postmodern homes are few and far between, they stand out in developments where architects convinced custom homeowners and builders to invest in this style. While this trend was quite “of the moment” at the time, it now appears dated and may not appeal to many buyers.

The best definition of 1980s home styles is neither old, nor new, but somewhere in between. Houses of this period almost always featured double garages, with wide driveways providing access. Bedrooms became larger, with walk-in closets the norm, and many homes included a guest room in addition to bedrooms for the occupants.

Luxury bathrooms began to take up more space in the home. Bathrooms featured skylights, interior gardens, televisions, telephones, jacuzzi tubs and showers with multiple shower heads. It is not uncommon to see bathrooms with multiple levels and occasionally, a fireplace. Large vanities with sinks, often with marble or granite counters and lavishly like mirrors also became standard. 

Raising standards of design

Larger windows, both arched and hexagonal, are prominent in 1980s homes, as are large sliding glass doors, providing access to patios and decks. Bringing the outdoors in, which was first seen in the 1970s, flourished during the 1980s. Glass block, first used in Europe in the 1930s, had a comeback and was used in windows and as room dividers inside houses.

Houses were better insulated, making heating more efficient. Central air conditioning also became more commonplace and affordable in homes of the 80s. Another introduction, primarily in suburbia, was the breezeway, or open porch, connecting two sections of the house.

Breezeways were typically found joining garages and kitchens. Over time, breezeways may have been enclosed to expand living space, so be aware of this adaptation. 

Kitchens continued to grow in size with both tables for family dining and breakfast bars with barstools for casual snacks or quick meals. Sometimes referred to as “breakfast bars,” family and guests gathered to chat and snack in the kitchen, which became the center of the home. Formal dining rooms were still a feature of houses, but the wall between the dining room and the kitchen was becoming less common.

Family rooms and recreation rooms now supplemented living rooms. Family living in the 1980s offered multiple areas to entertain, relax and watch television. Cable TV appeared in the 1980s and the television had even more of a featured presence in the home. Bars — either full size with sinks, icemakers, and refrigerators — or smaller mini bars began to appear in living rooms, dens or libraries.

Colonial style with less upkeep

Exteriors of 1980s homes were clad in aluminum siding for the first time, which promised less upkeep. Brick veneer and wood siding continued to be used, especially in the great American favorite, the colonial home. Streamlined traditional features and design elements are typical of 1980s traditional design.

An authentic reproduction of 18th-century architecture was not the goal during this time period, but rather a flavor of traditional elements. The 1980s house can have a bland or uninteresting exterior facade lacking character yet may conceal a spacious interior with dramatic spaces and multiple levels. It is wise not to judge a house of this period by the exterior.

1980s homes were built with modern wiring, including ground fault circuit interrupters or GFCI electrical outlets in kitchens and bathrooms for safety purposes to prevent shocks. This new type of duplex receptacle was added to residential building codes across the country.

Another innovation in construction was the flexible plastic pipe of polybutylene, known as PB. These pipes developed leaks at connections and homebuyers should, as always, engage a home inspector to confirm that plumbing has been updated.

Real estate agents encounter endless styles of homes in their research and daily travels. Some are pure styles that are easily defined, and others are a pastiche of design elements. Both buyers and sellers will respond positively to an agent who can identify and discuss design elements and periods. A trained eye and curious nature are invaluable in learning about home styles and periods.

Gerard Splendore is a licensed associate real estate broker with Warburg Realty in New York. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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