Circa 1990: What real estate agents need to know about housing styles of the time

As the end of the millennium approached, homes became more modern and contemporary, with a penchant for customization. Inman contributor Gerard Splendore guides real estate agents through the architecture and home styles of the 1990s.

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American housing styles have changed and continue to change across the country and as homeowner 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 guide 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 facilitate finding a home with your buyers easier for everyone.

As the millennium approached, the need and desire to see housing as ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ became more immediate.

More traditional styles, such as America’s love of Colonial and Colonial Revival styles, are still in evidence in the 1990s. While classic elements such as columns and pediments adorned these Colonial-style homes 1990s, they also included garages, driveways, decks, and patios, which had never been seen in the original colonial homes of the 1880s.

The condominium

The 1990s saw the introduction of more multi-housing units, such as condominiums, built in a clean, modern style, with traditional elements to add exterior interest. Ranch-style homes and “backpackers” remained popular, built on a slab with no basement or on multiple levels with partial basements.

Innovations from this era, still present in 1990s homes, are intercom systems, greenhouse windows, typically found in kitchens, and high loft-style ceilings. Laundry rooms began to appear on the first floor, where previously they were only found in the basement. Electric garage door openers also became popular around this time.

home movies

Home interiors in the 1990s featured built-in home entertainment systems and home theaters were quickly all the rage. Many home theaters have been built with lavish features such as plush seating on various stepped levels, allowing an unobstructed view from every seat, large screens, bars, and the ubiquitous popcorn machine.

Another popular feature of houses from this period was the waterbed. These beds could be very heavy, requiring more structural support to support the weight. Leaks from waterbeds were common, making them banned in apartment buildings and condominiums.


Insulation was used more effectively in 1990s homes, as were double-glazed windows. Wood-burning stoves were gaining popularity as a heating alternative or to supplement central heating. Each wood-burning stove had a water kettle on top to add humidity inside. These stoves added to the feeling of “rustic elegance” that the 1990s made commonplace.

Natural wood tones, especially knotty pine, became a signature of 1990s interiors, especially in kitchens. There was a trend towards modern minimalism with a Zen or Shaker simplicity. This modernism also had elements of Japanese influence. If you approach a home and it has a white crushed stone “zen” garden near the entrance or attached to a back patio, chances are it dates back to the 1990s.

Carpeting, often over hardwood floors, was still widely used in the 1990s because laminate flooring had not yet gained popularity. As an agent, if you are showing a house from this period and it has carpeting, be sure to ask the listing agent or owner to lift a corner of the carpeting to determine if the floor of hardwood sits under the carpet. Chances are the hardwood floors are in excellent condition, having been carpeted for decades.

The disposition

Open floor plans had not yet been widely accepted, but are prominent in public spaces of homes in the 1990s. Remember that many homes have been updated or modernized from when they were built of origin. It’s always wise to ask sellers when the renovations were completed and if the home has been appraised since. Track lighting was also widely used in the 1990s and can give interiors a dated look.

Entrances and front doors were formal in the 1990s, with sidelights or narrow windows on either side of the front door. Once inside, a gracious foyer, often featuring a chandelier and a “statement” staircase, was commonplace. The living rooms still had fireplaces and the formal dining room is very present, although the family used it only a few times during the year.

The residential architecture of the 1990s is increasingly homogenized, with fewer particularities. Custom homes were commonly available, and buyers could select their facade and floor plan from catalogs, making alterations and additions as they pleased.

If a home seems “too personalized” or “too unique,” this can pose a problem for the seller, as its appeal may not be universal. The savvy realtor, with a bit of knowledge and a trained eye, will have the ability to discuss update and renovation options with buyers.

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