Home Guru

We are part of The Trust Project
Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

Many years ago when my wife and I discovered our dream home in the country, we were delighted that we could figure out a way to turn a one and a half-story saltbox wing with all original 18th century details into a separate apartment. We’re convinced it was and still is the most charming rental unit in all of Westchester.

However, it came with one caveat. Whenever it was available for rent and we received inquiries from prospective tenants, the first thing my wife would ask was, “Do you mind telling me how tall you are?”

There was always a questioning pause on the other end of the line, but if the answer was 6-foot-2 or over, her response was, “Sorry, I don’t think this apartment would be for you.” The reason was simple to explain. The structure was built in 1734 when people were shorter, and the ceilings on both floors are barely two inches more than that in height.

We didn’t want to waste a tall person’s time in considering a home where they might feel like Gulliver visiting Lilliput or Alice in Wonderland inside the rabbit’s house.

In those early days, most houses were simple utilitarian structures and homebuilders knew that lesser heights meant less space to heat in the winter and, therefore, less wood chopping to fit into a day already bursting with physical activity.

My house belonged to a tenant farmer on the Van Cortlandt land grant and his needs were quite simple. Down the road at the landlord’s Van Cortlandt Manor, greater affluence afforded ceilings with greater height. The same holds true today.

While ceiling heights in Victorian times had reached average heights of 13 feet, based on English city houses, heights moderated down to eight feet with the advent of mass housing developments after World War II. That height, based on the standardized length of an eight-foot stud, stayed in place until the term McMansion was coined in the early 1980s where center halls and family rooms could soar two stories high.

By the end of the 20th century, increased fuel costs put a damper on ceiling heights. Today, the average ceiling height for new construction is nine feet on the first floor and eight feet on the second. That extra foot in height on the first floor, it is estimated, can increase the cost of building a home from $20,000 to $30,000 for a 4,000-square-foot house, depending where in the country it is built. To keep everything in proper scale, a higher ceiling means that furniture might have to be larger, windows have to be taller, crown molding has to be thicker, a fireplace mantel must be taller, light fixtures bigger and even artwork has to be larger to cover more wall space.

What mitigates the extra expense of taller ceilings is the cost savings that come from better insulation and other energy-saving improvements to windows and doors.

My friend, architect Michael Piccirillo, who designs many upscale homes in the region, commented on ceiling height trends today as follows: “In the past, homes were built with what we call a ‘balloon frame’ where studs go from grade level to roof, as opposed to the ‘platform frame’ we use today where each floor’s studs make their own separate box and one box is placed upon the other. With a balloon frame, ceilings could be any height, but as the milling of studs was standardized to eight feet in the early 20th century, ceiling heights were almost universally that same measurement.

“A comfortable ceiling height today depends on who you talk to. Affluent clients are asking for a nine foot minimum ceiling height, but prefer 10- or even 12-foot ceilings.  Anything less than that is unacceptable to the people who do not have to be concerned with utility costs. But, interestingly, new zoning regulations keep even the wealthiest clients from going overboard in that the overall building height is limited in our communities, which in turn limits the height of ceilings.”

Beyond cost, another factor to consider is the psychology of it all. Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, conducted research recently which concluded that while consumers say that a higher ceiling makes a room feel more expansive, it can also render it cold and austere.

Besides an open floor plan, today we want homes that are more inviting, casual and warm. Part of achieving that is with ceilings that are more humanly scaled. So if you’re a house hunter, consider carefully the space between your head and the ceiling, because it can’t be changed easily, unless you partake of Alice’s magic mushroom!

Bill Primavera is a Residential and Commercial Realtor® associated with Coldwell Banker, as well as a publicist and journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions about home maintenance or to engage him to help you buy or sell a home, he can be emailed at or called directly at 914-522-2076.





We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.