Raising the roof on a ranch

SHREWSBURY -- As she looked around the 1,075-square-foot ranch, prospective buyer Kim Prefontaine was appalled by the cramped floor plan and dcor that screamed 1960s. Then she thought to herself: ''It's perfect."

Not to live in. Not by a long shot. No, it was time to raise the roof.

In four months, this single-story ranch would be transformed into a Colonial with twice as much space, plus granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, a new garage, and an open floor plan.

''It's like watching ['Extreme Makeover: Home Edition']," the Shrewsbury resident said. ''You go in and you're horrified to see what it looks like. Then the work starts and you just get more and more excited. It's a brand-new home when you're done."

With undeveloped land as rare as mature trees in new subdivisions, homeowners and builders frequently are adding second-story additions to the ranches and bungalows that sprouted up across the state, and much of the country, in the 1950s and '60s. While the scarcity of buildable lots in pricey towns like Wellesley and Lexington often leads to the demolition of smaller homes, the economics in towns like Shrewsbury and Braintree are such that it usually makes more sense to build up than to tear down.

''We see a considerable number of people putting on second-story additions," said Mike McGourty, a building inspector in Braintree. ''It's an easier way to get more space. In most cases, you don't have the land to the right or left or to the back."

Often Braintree residents looking for more room want to stay in town because the schools are good and the tax rate is reasonable, but they can't afford a new house, McGourty said.

''If you bought a house for $200,000 you could maybe sell it for $400,000, but a new home is $600,000-plus," he said, adding that residents ask themselves: ''Do I sell and pick up another $200,000 in mortgage, or do I put a $100,000 addition on?"

Like other towns, Braintree has a lot of ranches that were built by Campanelli Brothers, a construction company known for what were then modern, and, most of all, affordable homes.

''They're all on smaller lots," McGourty said. ''There's no place to go but up."

The same scenario is playing out in Shrewsbury.

''Basically, our inventory of new lots is way down, plus the cost of new housing is so high," said Ron Alarie, the town's building inspector. While small lakeside cottages, many of which were built before town water and sewers, are being torn down, it's more common for homeowners to add on -- and most are second-story additions.

Earlier this year, Prefontaine and her husband Chris decided to start converting ranches into Colonials as an investment. They recently purchased their second ranch in Shrewsbury. The first ranch-turned-Colonial, purchased for $247,000, sold within weeks of being listed for the full asking price of $492,000.

She's currently working on a ranch on Vega Drive with 1,075 square feet, three bedrooms, and one bathroom. After the renovation, the house will have four bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, including a master suite.

''The older neighborhoods have good-size land lots and nice quiet streets," said Prefontaine. ''We take a ranch in one of those neighborhoods, add a second floor, and add a two-car garage. We do a total gut. The ranch is a box and you start with that shell."

The first step is getting an architect to draw up plans, followed by the permitting process. The actual construction begins with excavation for the garage foundation. After that's done, a framing crew comes in. A fireplace is added, then it's time for the roof. Once the insulation, siding, and gutters are installed, the work moves inside.

In all, the process takes four months and involves anywhere from 75 to 100 workers, including electricians, plumbers, plasterers, framers, masons, hardwood and tile installers, carpenters, and landscapers.

More than the additional space that the house gains, there's a complete transformation. Both ranches she worked on had a front door that opened to a closet door. The renovation features a bright, two-story foyer. The once small and choppy rooms will give way to an open floor plan.

''I try to keep it as open as possible, because that's what people want," Prefontaine said.

Ironically, the original ranches designed by California architects also were open -- that's what made them new and innovative. The idea was to make things easier for housewives, with kitchens looking out over dens. But eventually ranches fell out of favor.

Dale Roberts, a real estate broker with Hammond Residential GMAC in Chestnut Hill and Back Bay, said buyers often want ''anything but a ranch. It's traditional New England -- the center-entrance Colonial is usually the first choice. Nobody's interested in a ranch."

Despite the current snobbery against ranches, Roberts, who grew up in a ranch her father built, remains a fan. Although she has switched to city living, if she ever bought another house, Roberts said, it would be a ranch.

''It's so easy and great for entertaining," she said. ''And my taste happens to be very minimalist and contemporary."

But she's not against renovating ranches, either.

''You can build a masterpiece if you do it right," Roberts said.