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Renovating my House

Are Sunken Living Rooms 70’s? Yay or Nay

By 05/14/2012August 8th, 201753 Comments

One of the things I did not like at all about our house when touring it initially was the sunken living room (Both angles below). To change it though would be seriously over-renovating as obviously the fireplace would have to be moved.

Photos by Maria Killam

When designing what the new step would look like, I initially considered this look:


But then decided that it was too modern for my rancher.


Then I found these steps from The Holiday house with Cameran Diaz and Kate Winslet. I like the look of the landing and the way the risers are painted the wall colour. I will do the same thing. And we will do a similar look to both sides, the railings in the dining area are gone and it will be just one long step down into the living room.

So I think it will still look good and certainly much more up-to-date without the dated railing and old carpeting. Over to you my lovelies, how do you feel about sunken living rooms? Are they 70’s are can they be 2012?

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11 pins


  • Nancy B says:

    Taking out the railings will open up the space so much. I love the idea of the stairs going all the way across with wood treads. It will make your living room up to date…truly the 2010’s look. Good work

  • Lee Cardwell says:

    Agree with taking out the railings and running the stairs all the way across. The space looks really cool. It will be gorgeous when you are done. I’ve always liked sunken livingrooms, 70’s or not.

  • Jennifer says:

    I do not like them, but I have seen them in big, new, suburban houses. So I do not think of them as dated, just not my preference.

  • Anonymous says:

    What a fabulous idea. I think it will be a huge improvement.

  • Carol Landt says:

    We bought a 20 year old home that has a sunken wet bar. Thirty years ago we really wanted one, ha ha! Now we have it and just call it our “groovy” sunken wet bar and all that’s missin is the peace signs! What’s old is new? I am enjoying your new house, Maria!

  • I have a house built in the 80’s with a sunken living room. I never once even asked myself if it was too 70’s or 80’s. It is part of the architecture of the house and I accept it as that. In fact I like the break in height as I feel it adds interest to what is, for the most part, a very plain, contemporary home. I like your solution.

  • Melinda says:

    I would make the step more of a feature than just a way to access the room, by making it deeper and longer and rounded at the ends. That way it is a graceful platform rather than a choppy step. Perhaps a tree on one side or maybe a statue. I’d pull up the carpet adding hardwood to the room and the newly configured platform and paint the riser the color of the trim, preferably white. The amount of floor space you would lose would be well worth it in my opinion. It’s a great ranch and the studio out back will be fantastic I’m sure!

  • Melinda says:

    And, no I don’t think a sunken living room has to date the house at all.

  • Iris Bieri says:

    I had a sunken living room in my last house and I loved it! Maybe I’m the only one, but stepping ‘down’ into my living room always felt so ‘loungey’ and inviting.

  • Shawna says:

    You might have to have a railing due to building codes. I think two steps require a railing. I live on Vancouver Island and I don’t know if building codes are regional or provincial or national, but in a house I recently had renovated there was a sunken dining area with two steps down and we had to have a railing.

  • Victoria says:

    built a house in 1998 with one step down into the
    living room in order tohave 10 ft ceilings I loved it
    would do it again in a heartbeat. Do the the steps
    like you are suggesting it will be gorgeous!

  • Marlo says:

    I say Yay!

    I never considered it to be dated but a feature the builder offered. Whenever I step down into a sunken room it feels like I am stepping into a room that is more precious than the other rooms in the house – because of the step. The step announces that this space is different and makes me pay more attention to what is in the room.

  • Megan says:

    Hey Maria- I would have to say Nay-most of the time. However the sunken living room from the movie is a definate Yay! I think getting rid of the carpet in your sunken living room is a definate yes, have wooden stairs and paint risers- Can’t wait to see the outcome- good luck!

  • Nicole says:

    I think it is a perfect opportunity to add interest with your flooring. I think a herringbone design would be stunning!

  • Jacquie says:

    We have the exact same looking sunken living room/railing set up. I loved it until my family grew and I realize it’s impossible to extend the dining room table for large gatherings. If the steps didn’t exist we could easily accommodate the whole gang by borrowing a bit of the living area for a few hours. We’ve also updated the kitchen and other areas but the sunken living room made opening up the space like we wanted (open concept) impossible. Oh, well. You can’t have everything. I certainly don’t think it’s an ugly dated look but it is kinda 70’s – 80’s.

    And we also took out the carpeting and did hardwood and I LOVE it!

  • I love the idea of painting the riser that same color of the wall. My question is this?? Do you continue the wood floor from the top level to the living room so it will have more consistancy….which I recommend. How do you treat the transition from the edge of the top level to the step below, so you don’t break your neck going down the step. I am going through this issue right now.

  • Holly says:

    I have to agree that I never thought of a sunken living room as being dated, but I guess it depends on what type of features it has going on. I’m working with a client right now on her sunken living room and hers I believe is quite classic. It’s got nice built-ins and a fireplace as well – it needs a few updates but I think it’s a nice part of the home.

  • Mary says:

    My house was built in 1941 and has a sunken living room. Actually in the south, we call it a “step down” living room – it is a fairly common architectural feature of houses built in that era. So, I would say your sunken living room is timeless. And, that is how my risers have always been painted!

  • teresa says:

    I really like sunken living rooms, especially as you plan on changing the length of the step. I find they really up the glam quotient.
    As Mary says, it’s not even a 70s concept, but goes back beyond the twenties and is often found in deco-style homes and California bungalows in the Spanish colonial and revival style. In the latter cases, the risers are often tiled with mexican-type pavers creating a really warm feeling. I think you recently worked on a twenties house of that style.
    P.S. I’m not actually suggesting that for your house. I like the path you’ve chosen.

  • I agree with Margaret Ryall above – it’s an architectural feature. What dates it is the railing and the carpeted stairs – once you remove them and put in the new contemporary stair it will suddenly seem contemporary. Can’t wait to see it’s cooler look.

  • MaryAnne says:

    How lucky you were to find a house with such interesting features. Most of the small ranches that are being built now are lacking in any architectural interest. LOVE the sunken livingroom and what you are doing with the steps!

  • Betty Poe says:

    i agree that a sunken living room doesn’t necessarily look dated or 70’s….I lived in a home for about a year, a rental that was only 5 years old built in 2004, and it had a sunken living room, it didn’t look dated at all….that said, i didn’t like it but only because of functional reasons…it seemed particularly problematic for children (the owners little girl tripped going up the ‘stair’ and gashed her forehead on the travertine in the foyer…and i tripped once myself (no injuriy) just being a klutz when i got up in the middle of the night once….stilll there is no way i would change it (the work on the fireplace just sounds like such overkill to address the perceived datedness.) would be a huge cost/benefit NO….

    so YES to your plan, it should look fantastic…..I would only add that you might also consider some recessed lighting under the first ‘step’ on a dimmer.. for safety reasons when you are padding around at night…and it becomes even more of a ‘feature’ as well

  • Claire says:

    Maria, your home is quite a serendipitous find! I grew up in a 50s-built home with a large, gracious, sunken living room with arched entryways, beautiful wood floors and a grand bay window feature. Over the years, my parents kind of dissed the step-down feature because it was potentially “dangerous” and “inconvenient.” Looking back, that’s funny because they didn’t seem to mind the steep set of stairs from the drive to the walk and the other set of stairs from the walk to the front door! You just need to be aware. The only time our sunken room proved to be problematic was when my aged grandmother and another elderly family friend could not get up or down the stairs without assistance. And, obviously, if someone is injured or assisted by a cane, crutches, walker or wheel chair, the steps are an issue. All that said, my parents entertained for years and that room came to be known as one of the loveliest in town… and I credit the sunken feature more than anything else. Today, realtors are urging my dad to give them the listing; the distinctive living room is considered a key selling point. As a final note, working with my husband who is a real estate broker, I’ve seen a TON of houses. Years ago, in one development, I went into 9 or 10 different houses in a day. One home stood out to me, and is still memorable today. Guess what… It has a sunken living room.

  • justlemmon says:

    I have the exact same living room and I took out the carpet and stained wide stairs to match the floors and painted the trim, it looks great! Yours will too. I love that the ceiling are higher in my living room, It has a wall of windows and is dramatic.

  • Sara Smith says:

    Your ideas are perfect, I think!

    As for the dated issue, you will laugh to hear that my husband covets a sunken living room! My parents bought a house 6 years ago with a sunken living room and while he totally fell in love with it, we both really like it. I think with kids (which I’m sure you’ll see with your nephews), it somehow feels like more contained and manageable, but also cozy at the same time. We especially like it when it’s open to the kitchen.

  • Cindy says:

    The step is appropriate for the style of the home, so that wouldn’t bother me as much as one long step from the dining room, which is what you described. Be careful of the rise, you don’t want it too high.

  • We have a sunken den but I like the name “step-down” mentioned above. We recently had new hardwood put down in the entire first floor. Looks great, HOWEVER. It seems to be a safety hazard for visitors who don’t notice the step. Scary, and I don’t know what to do about it that won’t spoil the looks. Even if we paint the baseboard underneath the step to match the walls, it wouldn’t be seen from the top as you enter the room which is where most people get tripped up. Any suggestions short of a sign and/or a constant verbal reminder?

  • Ellie says:

    Hi Maria,
    I think the sunken room from the movie is beautiful, and probably wouldn’t look quite as awesome if it wasn’t sunken. I didn’t think I was a fan of sunken living rooms, but that pic may have changed my mind. Your new home is lovely, thank you for sharing the progress. It’s been a real help for those of us who are also moving into new houses or updating old ones.

  • Karen says:

    I have the same situation, except the stairs are narrower. I took off the railing years ago and now notice that our elderly parents can’t maneuver them as easily. The steps can’t be very high for the aged. (Our insurance company made us put a railing on the stairs of our deck even though there are very large planter boxes on both sides and only a couple of steps.) I love the changes that you are making and your studio! Thanks for sharing!

  • Hi Maria. I generally do not like sunken anything. That being said, the house I designed for our family 25 years ago has a sunken family and living room. But if for budget reasons, or otherwise, you do not wish to change it you are approaching it in the right way – rather than trying to hide it, make it a feature. Have it stand out and make the statement. I think you are handling it the right way.

  • Jo says:

    Maria, I have emailed you some photos of a step-down living room in an Atlanta house we built 20 years ago and sold two years ago. The photos don’t do justice to the spaces, but the “sunken” living room (25′ x 15′ w/15′ ceiling) with its stepped ceiling was the highlight of the house. I am emailing the pictures separately since I don’t see how to attach them here. No one picture I have gives a good view of the steps on each side of the built-in credenza, so I’m sending pieces of the area. –Jo

  • Jackie says:

    I am very obsessed with this writer from Apartment Therapy’s home that they did a tour of recently.

    Leah’s house doesn’t have the full effect of your room as the rest of the house becomes level, but having steps instead of a wall to delineate a room is very cool in my humble mind.

  • SandyCGC says:

    Maria, obviously the current look is old and dated but when you’re done, based on the pix you show, it will be totally glam! The only issue with stairs is the risk of falls and Shawna may be right about the code requirement for railings – would definitely check it out before you start so that if they are required, you can work them into your design rather than have to add something later. Also, down the road, if you come to have regular visitors who can’t negotiate any steps, even with railing, you could have a sturdy but lightweight and fairly narrow ramp created with a bottom that rested on your steps and the ramp on top that you could move in for the needy visitors and then store away for the usual. You’ll make it work beautifully and colorfully too. The only thing I don’t like about your pix is the lack of color in the room – looks very cold and stark and downright uninviting to me
    Your room certainly won’t. Be sure to let us watch the progression!

  • "Bristol Sunset" says:

    No, I don’t thinkn a sunken living room has to date the house. I like the image you posted. It looks clean and contemporary.

    Another idea comes from my world of old houses (100-year old, not from the 1970’s). If you check out the new June 2012 issue of This Old House, the image on page 87 describes my thoughts. You could go the route of craftsman/bungalow and use short, built-in bookcases on either side of the stairs. Eliminate the spindles of course! Then install half-columns from the top of the bookcases to the ceiling. I love the feel of a cozy living room with
    built-in bookshelves.

  • diane says:

    I am currently wretling with the same problem and we sell our family home and move back into a 1980’s townhouse that has beeen a rental for 15 years. I like the step down and mine has a seven foot railing that stretches across the threshold that I am trying to decide what design to choose. Love the glassed in look but I agree with the others who said if you have steps there should be some sort of railing and I find them an interesting piece of “art” for the room. Will be excited to see your choices.

  • Debbi in Texas says:

    What you have chosen to do is perfect; I think it adds a glamour touch to the space. We are actually doing the same thing in our new house; my husband the architect likes step down LR’s to allow for a higher ceiling appearance in the space; it defines the space and makes it “special”

  • Janet says:

    I like the idea of making the stairs a “feature” in the room. If it were my house, I might consider extending the dining room floor area further into the living room to accommodate extensions for a dining table if entertaining larger groups is a possibility for you. Obviously that would change the proportions in the room with the fireplace which may not be practical. I’m not a huge fan of fireplaces, so I wouldn’t mind removing it (if you did, is it possible to raise the whole floor?), but that may not be everyone’s choice, especially up in Canada.

    As an aside, I don’t have a sunken room but I have a dining room and living room in a traditional colonial style home that are on either side of the entry-way, and I would love to switch them because the LR is half again as long and would actually fit my extended table during the holidays. It’s not that so far from the kitchen as to be un-manageable. (My husband thinks I’m off my rocker, so we haven’t done it yet.)

  • debbiecz says:

    You’ve picked the right direction – removing the rug & railings will immediately erase the 1975 feel. But before doing the stairs, consider your furniture placement – will having stairs interfere with anything? P.S. I can just see your nephews zipping matchbox cars from the top over the stairs to land in the living room – you’ll be the best auntie ever.

  • carol ann says:

    the holiday house picture proves that it will look wonderful, I like how they used oversize vases on each side to remind you that the step is there…

  • We have a sunken family room. I took down the railings too.

    Wishing you many years of happiness in your new home!

  • Linda says:

    I agree, it is a great architectural feature to the home. As said, what dates it is the finishes not the plan or layout. I also love that the sunken living room helps divide the 2 spaces with still allowing for an open concept. Can wait to see it once you do your magic.

  • Loribeth says:

    I think it is a wonderful architectural detail. You should play it up. Remove the railings and extend the steps the whole length of the opening, making the bottom step extend even further. That way you won’t need any railings. It’s only when you have three steps that you need a railing, as long as there isn’t any area where someone can step off a deep drop…
    Get rid of the carpet. Use hardwood treads instead, and paint the raisers the same color as your walls.
    Architectural features don’t date rooms, its the furnishing that date rooms. So you your flare for design and make it 2012!

  • Beth says:

    Our townhouse has a sunken living room. Removing the railing, as you have done, really helped to open up the space between our dining and living areas. It also felt much less dated. Soon, we will install wood floor in the entire space…I am hoping this will make it look even more fluid. Love The Holiday house. 🙂

  • Diane says:

    Living in an area where every home has basements – we never see sunken living rooms. So I like them – they are unique and I love the heightened ceiling they allow. I love your idea with the steps, that will absolutely make a statement that is not tied to a previous decade. Can’t wait to see your home come together!

  • Priscilla says:

    We have a sunken LR in our 1970s house that I have come to loathe becuz of the safety issues. I took out the railing years ago and now I wish I had it back. We inadvertently made the problem worse when we took up the LR carpet and put travertine tile throughout the kitchen/dining/LR area. People don’t see the step down at all and fall into the LR or trip up into the kitchen. I’ve been trying to think of solutions for years and the only thing I have come up with is to put up stick-on closet style lights onto the stair facing when we have company come over….

  • Ann Cotsalas says:

    We have a step down into our dining room,and I am very afraid of people falling. ( Many have )They don’t see it. there is marble before it and into the Diving Room I have a runner at the base. I do not like the look of a railing what can I do? I want to raise it but I think the price would be prohibitive.

  • Laura says:

    I love your blog and it has been my biggest inspiration in renovating my house. We have a 70’s house with a sunken lounge room and we have just put in timber laminate floor and updated the step and it looks amazing. Couldn’t be happier and would have to say that I actually like the lounge room being sunken, to me it defines the space from the dining area and creates a relaxing and cosy feel to the lounge area. Originally we had pinky latte coloured carpet and although it was quite new, your website gave me the confidence to rip it out and the difference is unreal, now the undertones in the house are really working. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much your information on your blog has helped.

  • Patti says:

    We did a sunken family/great room in out newly built home because we wanted taller ceilings and a large feel to the room. We also did a different hardwood in there (walnut) versus a cherry that is on the rest of the first floor. We lvoed the walnut and wish we could have done the whoel house in it but it was too expensive for us. So, it probably doesn’t look as cohesive as it should but we love it and the sunken room I don’t think dates a house at all. I actually like them in that it is a characteristic of the home to be loved.

  • TD22 says:

    I have a fully remodeled house that was for sale in 2016 and now again in 2017. My one-story house is popular and draws in many potential buyers. The biggest drawback from feedback is the sunken living room. Many who want/need a one-story home, is someone taking in an elderly parent. The steps pose a negative for them.

    A few in our tract have filled in their sunken living room mainly because the low point in those homes created a water leak problem. I haven’t had that issue. I didn’t fill in the sunken living room because of the fireplace.

    We had a friend fill in her sunken living room. It was a daunting project filling in the sunken living room with lots of cement over cement slab. The end result was lovely.

    I don’t think I’ll buy another home with a sunken living room. Too hard to resell.

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