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Ranch-style condos, with everything on one floor, make their introduction to the region

Saturday, November 24, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like most Pittsburghers, Carla Villa opted for the usual two-story frame house with a big back yard when she set up housekeeping in Robinson seven years ago. But in the back of her mind, she continued to dream about someday owning a Florida-style home.

Not only would a single-story residence offer more uniform heating and cooling -- the second floor of Villa's Colonial was always much cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer -- but maintenance, Villa concluded, would also be a snap.

Loretta Daczkowski, in the living room of her new condominium in the Villas at Parkwood Estates in Crescent, recently downsized from a three-story house in Moon.m (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

"They're so easy to clean," she says. "You don't have to drag the sweeper up and down the stairs."

So when Villa, owner of Solid Surfaces Inc. in Carnegie, decided to relocate to the western suburbs earlier this year, she checked out several townhouse and patio house developments in addition to traditional single-family homes. At first, she couldn't find what she wanted.

"Almost everything I looked at, especially the townhouses, had several flights of steps," she recalls.

Then in February, a Realtor friend told her about The Villas at Parkwood Estates, a new ranch condominium community being built in Crescent, a 25-minute drive from Downtown.

Built in clusters of four, these homes promised the ultimate in single-level living: a great room with a cathedral ceiling and gas log fireplace, formal dining room as well as eat-in kitchen area, large master bedroom with walk-in closet, and a three-season screened-in sunroom. Villa, 43, was so impressed, she bought a three-bedroom unit based on the picture alone.

Currently under construction, the two-bedroom, two-bath "Abbey" model begins at $156,900 while the three-bedroom, two-bath "Canterbury" starts at $165,900. Both homes include gas heating, electric central air and an attached two-car garage that has been pre-wired for an automatic garage door opener.

The open floor plan and ease of being on one level aren't the only selling points, says Villa, who moved in at the end of July. She also likes the professional management services. Because the homes are condos, owners don't have to bother with yard work or daily upkeep; the monthly $85 association dues guarantee someone else will shovel snow and ice on cold winter mornings, mow the grass and trim the bushes in warmer months and maintain the stone or brick exterior year-round.

While the majority of houses sold in the United States boast two levels or more, the concept of single-level living is hardly new. Originated in California in the mid '30s, ranch-style houses were built in great numbers after World War II, when cheap land in the suburbs became readily available and Americans turned to automobiles instead of buses and streetcars as their primary mode of transportation.

In the Villas at Parkwood Estates, the two-bedroom, two-bath model begins at $156,900 while the three-bedroom, two-bath unit starts at $165,900. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Most commonly constructed of brick, wood and stone, these relatively small, horizontal homes peaked in popularity in the '50s and '60s. Many featured large picture or ribbon windows and low-pitched, hipped roofs with moderate or wide overhangs. Partially enclosed courtyards or patios and built-in garages or carports were other common features.

Though homebuyers aren't exactly clamoring for ranch houses -- two-story residences are still the most popular buy, especially in new developments -- they sell quickly once they hit the market, says Bob Fox, Howard Hanna's top agent in the West Suburban office.

Part of the draw, says Fox, is that existing ranch homes typically have quality construction. They're also smaller than most two-story houses, which means they're relatively inexpensive.

And it's not just aging baby boomers or people with physical handicaps who are buying. Fox has sold ranches to several 20-something singles and young married couples.

"With some new carpeting and paint, you can easily update it," he says. "What's most important is that it's a quality home."

The ranch condo, however, is new to Western Pennsylvania, according to The Villas developer Paul Scarmazzi, 37. Lots of townhouses and patio homes claim to be one level, he says, but to get today's square footage, builders almost always add a third room as a loft, which requires putting in steps. Or they put in a basement.

The Villas, conversely, provides everything on one floor, laundry room and garage included.Nestled on 14 landscaped acres, the development is franchised by The EPCON Group, a Columbus-based single-story condominium builder. Named the 1999 Central Ohio BIA Builder of the Year, EPCON has built more than 9,000 condos in 16 states over the past 14 years. Less than 10 miles from the airport, The Villas at Parkwood Estates is close to dozens of restaurants, stores and entertainment centers, including the just-opened Robinson Mall.

When it is completed in 14 months, the Villas will feature 72 two- and three-bedroom condos. To date, about 32 have been constructed and 24 sold in eight different buildings.

Scarmazzi expects to sell more than a third to a cross-section of young professionals, singles and newly married couples. And every unit is also ADA/wheelchair accessible.

But the majority, Scarmazzi notes, will most likely be purchased by empty-nesters and active retirees looking for a simpler, maintenance-free lifestyle.

That would include people like 65-year-old Loretta Daczkowski. After spending much of her life in a 4,000-square-foot, three-story house in Moon, the retired floral designer was ready to downsize. She wanted a house that felt comfortably compact, but it also had to provide enough living space to accommodate visits from her eight grandchildren.

Daczkowski had trouble visualizing how The Villas would look from their blueprints. So she drove to one of EPCON's plans in Ohio for a personal tour. She said she was impressed: the 12-foot cathedral ceilings and sun-loving Palladian windows provided a sense of spaciousness while the unique design (every house looks like its own single-family home) guaranteed plenty of privacy.

Daczkowski became the second person to buy into the community, choosing a three-bedroom unit facing the woods with a finished sunroom.

With wild turkeys and woodpeckers as her neighbors, "I feel so much at peace," she says.

The Villas at Parkwood Estates, 1707 Heather Heights Drive, Crescent, are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information, call 724-457-3000 or visit the Web site at www.hawthcom.com/.

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