Living Room is to Parlor as Den is to Study

This morning, Dustin asked for the difference between a Living Room and a Family Room.  Before The Great Depression, and long before homes had attached garages, “grand” homes were often built with a “center hall”.  To one side of the center hall, in the front of the home, was the “Parlor” or “Formal Living Room”.  Directly opposite on the other side of the center hall was the Dining Room.  In the Northeast of this Country, that was a typical “Center Hall Colonial”.  The Grand Staircase was in the center hall, the Kitchen was behind the Dining Room and often separated by a “Butler’s Pantry” where the butler would stand between the Kitchen and Dining Room (hidden from view) and step out to fill water glasses and wine glasses,etc. 

See the first floor plan below, which while modern, emulates the Tradtional Center Hall Colonial with the Kitchen taking up 2/3rds of the rear of the home, the dining room and center hall in front of the Kitchen.  The entire left side of the hall in this floorplan is the Living Room, but that huge space usually had french doors or pocket doors.  If only one set of doors, then the front portion was “the parlor” and the rear portion was “the study”.  With two sets of doors dividing that left space, you could have a “Formal Living Room” or “parlor” at the front, a library in the center, and a “den/study” at the rear. 

This modern floorplan has access from the rear of the living room into the kitchen, but original floorplans would have had a solid wall there, with NO ACCESS to the rest of the home from the right portion in the rear, making it quiet enough for a den or study.  Hence the Butler’s phrase, “Master, will you be retiring to the study?” where “master” might be in the parlor, grab a book from the library and retire to the far rear end, usually dark recessess, to read it in “the study”.  

So now to Dustin’s question regarding Family Rooms.  Often the Family Room, if all on one floor as in the floorplan below, is “where the TV goes” and is the “Informal Living Room”.  Of particular note is that often the rest of the first floor is built over a basement or at least a crawl space, but the family room is more often built on “a slab”.  So if there is a crack in the slab, it is right under your rug, which is glued to the slab.  Family rooms on the main level (vs. in basement) came in by the eighties, along with the “master bath”, which at that time was just a sink toilet and shower accessed from inside the bedroom and separate from “the hall tub bath” for the kids who “bathed” rather than “showered”.

In opening, I talked about The Great Depression.  Homes built before that time when money was aplenty and homes were getting grand and grander.  After the depression and up through the war, there were not as many homes built.  At the end of the war and through the fifities, boxy cheap houses were built for the “men returning from the war” and the homes were mostly three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, living room and dining room ONLY.  Today we call them “small ramblers” here, large ramblers generally being built into the sixties.

Most notably in this Country, built for men returning from the war, were huge sections of these “little boxes” in neighborhoods in NY, NJ and PA known as “Levittowns” and the homes referred to as “Levittowners”.  [photopress:mslevitteen1955_03.jpg,thumb,alignright]

There was even a “Miss Levittown” of 1955.  You see many such 50s ramblers all over the Puget Sound, and Bellevue has tons of the larger, grander rambler with daylight basements built as income grew, long after the war and into the early and late sixties.

When I hear “The Bubbleheads” call these homes POS homes, I think of the soldiers and how happy they were that the Country cared enough about them to build these modest homes that they could afford after serving their country well and proudly.  The term was so foreign to me, that Jillayne had to privately email me and tell me what POS meant.  I hope some poor old soldier isn’t reading that nonsense.


You rarely see the above “center hall” version anymore.  The L shaped version below is more readily available all over the Country in both large and small versions.  Those that are not flat full stories on the second floor are bungalows, or cape cods, or center peak and slope down aka “Dutch Colonial”.  You don’t have to know all this in Seattle because everyone just calls them all “Craftsmen Homes” unless they are “tudors”.  Mt. Baker and Magnolia Bluff have some absolutely fabulous tradional post depression “specimens”.

Yes, I AM a housegeek!  My favorite are “the eyebrow windows” readily found in Green Lake. This is all off the top of my head, and hopefully fairly accurate.  Of course I have been in all kinds of homes, dating back through the 1500s.  So “my recollection” goes well beyond my years as an agent. 


So what the heck is a Great Room?  First let’s take the bathrooms up to speed.  A half bath is a “powder room” and usually exists on a first floor that has no bedroom on the first floor, so guests don’t have to go upstairs.  Puget Sound says “half bath” but most of the Country says “powder room” where guests go to “powder their noses” and not to pee.  It is rude to suggest that guests do anything there except powder their noses.

If you want your children to have big bedrooms vs. your having a “huge master suite”, look for homes built in the late seventies into the eighties.  By the late eighties and through today, the master suite gets bigger and bigger, and the children’s rooms get smaller and smaller…so we give them The Bonus Room which is that big extra space at the top of the stairs with no doors. 

OK – Great Room.  There are two styles of Great Room, one is a “true” Great Room and it is two stories tall and you enter it from the main entrance hall and it is great and grand.  There is a tiny formal living room/parlor off to the right or left of the front door and a tiny “man’s study/office” off to the other side of the entrance hall, but dead center in front of you and massively two stories tall is “The Great Room”, often with a grand circular staircase and “bridge”.  You can go up the stairs from left to right, and on one side is “the master wing” and the other side “the children’s bedroom wing” and a bridge aross the center of the second floor looks down into the great room at one side and the staircase and foyer from the other.

The OTHER version of a Great Room is a small home where the Family Room and Kitchen are combined with no wall between them.  That is called “A great room concept”, and not an actual “Great Room.  Back to the Family Room.  It’s “Where the TV goes” when people didn’t want toys and TV trays all over the formal living room, they invented “The Family Room” to keep the Living Room clean.  “California Splits” have “sunken Family Rooms” and I’ve seen several of them in Kirkland and Juanita/Finn Hill.  Not a “tri-level” but a grand, side to side, “California Split”. (The only place I have not seen a “California Split” is IN California)  Grand Ramblers, like the view homes in Lochmoor on Lake Sammamish have “Daylight Basement Family Rooms” often with grand views.  Lochmoor is a very interesting neighborhood whose “time has come” with one older rambler recently selling for over a million dollars.  The Family Room is, quite simply, the INFORMAL Living Room. 

It’s painfully obvious that I am the only freaky, house-junkie.  So, I wrote this for myself, to revisit “all the homes I’ve loved before” to take a page from Willy Nelson.  Someone will have to rewrite that song for me using the lingo from this post, but you’ll have to speed up the tune if I’m going to DDR to it 😉

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ARDELL is a Managing Broker with Better Properties METRO King County. ARDELL was named one of the Most Influential Real Estate Bloggers in the U.S. by Inman News and has 33+ years experience in Real Estate up and down both Coasts, representing both buyers and sellers of homes in Seattle and on The Eastside. email: cell: 206-910-1000

42 thoughts on “Living Room is to Parlor as Den is to Study

  1. 50 years from now, what will they say of us and our “home offices” and “media rooms,” “walk-in showers for two” and those very cool sounding “hidden rooms” plus all the new construction condos. Will they call these homes a Piece of S**t or will they talk about what was going on in the world and in American culture?

  2. Some people complain that families don’t stay in their homes their entire lives anymore. But different styles suit different stages of life.

    When the kids are small, the family room off the kitchen works better so you can hear if the kids are fighting with each other as it is all open.

    When they get to be pre-teens and you don’t want them hiding in their bedrooms all the time, a second floor bonus works well. You can hear them on the phone from downstairs because it is all open, but they don’t “see” you so they forget that you can listen.

    When they get older and you don’t want to hear them or their music, basement family rooms are great!

  3. Ardell,

    Thanks for clearing everything up with your most excellent explanation! 🙂

    I’d retire to the study for the night, but I’m already there!

    Or am I in the guest bedroom (it has closets and a futon)? Or is it a family room (it has our computer which serves as our TV)? Or does that make it our computer room? Or our home office (it has all our business files!)? I’m confused again. 😉

  4. Wow, you just took me down memory lane. It is fascinating how floorplans and room flow change with the times. With the rise of the mighty TV & video games came the inevitable media/game room–out of the basement where ping pong & pool tables used to live. And since you had to gate off the living room like a museum exhibit, you needed a family room to put your feet up. Yes, the family room IS the informal living room.

  5. Ardell,
    Interesting and nicely written. But you just started!

    Room descriptions get very intereting in the 5000 s/f plus monoliths in East King County where a kitchen isn’t a kitchen but a Chef’s kitchen and a master bath isn’t a mater bath, but a Master Suite. There we can have a Study, a Den and His and Hers offices. Media rooms, Hobby rooms, Workout rooms, Guest quarters (or should we call them Au Pair suites). Jack and Jill bath. Media rooms. Ballrooms, Billiard Rooms and Bonus rooms. The Mud room off the Utility room. And what do we call the Walk in Closet that is bigger a living room in a rambler? A Living Closet? Oh yes, there must be a Family Room in there somewhere! Thank God, the MLS has the “Extra finished room” catagory, but alas, it only has one.

  6. Greg,

    The MLS needs a massive update, including square footage per level so people can see the “main floor footprint” and how much of the square footage is in the basement.

    A “master BATH” is never a “Master Suite”, as a Master Suite includes the Master Bedroom plus the Master bath plus the Master Sitting Room making it a “suite of rooms”. A Chef’s Kitchen should really never come in an electric stove version, no matter how big it is. I say guest or “nanny” quarters, as I wouldn’t do the “Au Pair” thing, It’s like having an extra kid. My kids’ nanny had to be older than me when my kid’s were young. I haven’t seen a “ballroom” yet.

    I’m not a big fan of the Jack and Jill bath. They are built on the theory that the occupant of one bedroom locks the bath door to the other bedroom when they are using it. Then they UNLOCK it when they leave. It’s the unlock part they forget, forcing the occupant of the other bedroom to kick in the door (yes speaking from personal experience there). Of course in my case it was a “Jill and Jill” bath.

    I do think the newer basement level Theater and Media rooms make a lot of sense. I remember one of my clients’ buying a house with a Great Room and saying the big bright open room cast a glare on the TV. With two story ceiling height and big windows on the top level, it was hard to darken the room. His name was John Orobono and he said he felt like taking the TV into the closet during the ballgame.

    As to the “living closet”, reminds me of a post I’ve been meaning to write on closets.

    What’s your feeling on the value of basement square footage, Greg?

  7. You aren’t the only “house geek” Ardell. I think looking at a home’s original floorplan tells you so much about how people lived at the time the home was built. I find it fascinating.

  8. Many years ago, when I was in the Trust and Estate business in Philadelphia, Woodford Mansion built in 1756 was one of my accounts.  It is one of several 18th Century homes built in what is now Fairmount Park.  I once had to assist with a filming of one of the first Pennylvania Lottery commercials there with Ben Frankin and other NY actors dressed as historic figures.  I was amazed at how long it took to film a 30 second commercial.  Much of it was “makeup” for the actors.

    I worked with an attorney, Martin P. Snyder, on this project.  He had to remove all “non-period” items and replace them with period items.  It took years and years to get it to the point where it was exactly as someone would have furnished it back in 1756.  Mr. Snyder was always looking for more “Delftware”.  Delftware was made between 1550 and the end of the 18th Century. 

    It was where I learned that the big cooking fireplaces provided the heat on the second floor, and why there are “grates” in the floors, so the heat could rise up from the dinner cooking, and into the bedrooms.  That’s why it was cook dinner and then go to bed.

  9. The Jack and Jill bathrooms are great for torturing your older sister when she wants privacy, for sneaking into her room and playing with her toys, playing a game of roving hide-and-seek, and for riding a tricycle around and around and around the house in circles over and over and over again driving a mother to the end of insanity. Yes, I’d highly recommend the Jack and Jill bathrooms.

    You’ll recognize them from the Brady Bunch. All six shared a Jack and Jill bath.

  10. We once represented a builder in Bucks County who was selling his house. He had six children and each had their own bedroom and “study” with a bath connecting their bedroom and study. He also had an Icon Room (he was Greek) a huge mother-in-law wing and talk about master closet! It was round (built over the round Icon Room) and I think the clothes revolved like in a dry cleaners.  The center was one of those big round “sofas” where you could sit and ponder what to wear as the clothes revolved.

    There was 12,000 sf of deck, unfortunately most of it rotting for lack of maintenance. They used real spindles like an inside railing and it wasn’t treated wood.

    The funniest room in the houses started as a joke. Frank Mancuso said “Hey X, Where’s the room where you hide when the taxman cometh!?” He built a hidden room in the library that you entered through a secret panel. The only thing in the room was the phone to call his lawyer and a chair to sit and wait for the lawyer to get there.

  11. The above comment reminds me of a home feature we havent’ mentioned yet…a turret.  from the Italian word “torretta”.  I often wonder if real estate was my “destiny” given my “family name” is Loggia (Della meaning “of the”).

    The Colosseum in Rome, built in the year 70 is almost entirely Loggias.

  12. Ardell,
    You asked what my thoughts on basement square feet. In my mind,the price per s/f in my mind is situational. On the normal neighborhood house, basement square footage should comp for less than the rest of the house. The classic example for me is a split entry, which is the cheapest of all houses, price per square foot, for a builder to build. The basement costs very little for the builder to finish, but does give the homeowner a bigger home for the $$.

    There are situations where a builder puts a lot of money into finishing a basement area. Two examples would be a home theater and wine cellar. Done correctly, there is a miles of wiring, elaborate lighting, built in speakers and soundproofing expense. Another example could be an elaborite paneled and brick, arched entry wine cellar complete with corking station. The basement s/f in these scenarios should comp well with the rest of the home’s fit and finish.

    No kidding, I presently have a Redmond listing with a ballroom, and a Kirkland listing with a HUGE walk in closet.

    Speaking of secret rooms, how about the “wiring” room. I helped a client who spent over $500,000 on the wiring alone! It all terminated in a room behind a library (that had one of those trick swinging bookcases, just like you see in the movies hiding a secret room).

    I’ve also seen “spa” rooms decked out with sauna, spa, showers, massage table and everythng else you can think of along those lines.

    I agree, Chef’s kitchen is NOT electric! Don’t ya love seein’ the 4 burner electric range in the listing described as a “Chef’s Kitchen, or Gormet”?

    I think a fun idea for a post would be to chat about some of the adjectives we use to describe properties. I suppose our descriptions are highly subjective. Anymore I gag at the thought at writing “gormet” kitchen. I did use “Au Pair” with the Redmond lisitng. Perhaps our most overused word right now could be “Stunning”? What are your thoughts on hot descriptive words?

  13. Greg,

    Thanks! Fabulous! I’m not big on “hot descriptive words”. I got in big trouble for just using the word “huge” once. I go to my Open House and there’s a crowd of people waiting. My ad said there was a HUGE deck in the yard. The newspaper printed a typo on the word deck. They used an i instead of an e.

    I don’t think I have ever used the word stunning to describe a house. Women can be stunning, but not houses.

    On the East Coast, years ago, the Philadelphia papers would change our ads. I remember I used “quiet street” once and the word “quiet” was banned and removed. HUD had issued a warning that ads could not refer to people. I was talking about traffic, but the newspaper read it as “quiet neighbors” and removed it.

    Can’t use “Executive Homes” as it refers to the type of people who might live there. Can’t use “Family Neighborhood” or the word “family” at all. It’s not a law…it’s a HUD guideline to never use words that refer to people in any way when writing real estate ads. Hence “master” should not really be used at all.

    I get excited about views, so I might have used “spectacular” views somewhere. I’m so literal that if I say it’s “spectacular”, it IS. So if you ever see me say “Great Room”…it will be Great 🙂

  14. I’m going to poll some appraisers on that basement square footage issue and see what the guidelines are for appraisers.

    I saw one where the appraiser used $10 a square foot for finished basement. I thought that was awfully low.

  15. Great post and comments.

    No you are not the only “house junkie.” I too am fascinated by homes.

    I actually laughed out loud at your open house fiasco. Oh my.

    When I used to appraise, the only time I ever used $10 for basements was when it was unfinished. Because that was a rough estimate on concrete costs. A finished basement should have a value higher than that, but typically not as high as living space equal to or above the threshold. There just isn’t the same cost involved in creating the space.

  16. Interesting Debi,

    I haven’t thought hard enough about this as I don’t value property the way an appraiser does. If you count the bedrooms in the basement and the bathroom, you can’t count it as square footage also, can you? Wouldn’t that duplicate the value of the same space?

  17. No you are not duplicating the value of the same space. Square footage is what is vital to an appraiser. Because you have to give the bank the replacement cost vs. the market cost. Yes, bedrooms and bathrooms count as we should be comparing apples to apples on the comps. The report wants to know the total bedroom and bathroom count. Values are adjusted for bathrooms because there is a cost to create a bathroom. Typically I never had to adjust for bedrooms. Maybe once in several years. And somtimes that extra bedroom does have a true hard cost (like a view). But everytime I dealt with a property with a basement I explained what was in the basement on the notes page. I hope that answered your question.

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