The definition of a rambler house is quite simple in nowadays circumstances as any one-story home or ranch is also referred to as a rambler. The typical rambler house, however, has some specific characteristics that can not be as generalized as the term itself. For those interested in rambler houses the most important aesthetic characteristic is the one-story construction. Ramblers also have specific shapes, either an L-shape or the U-pattern. The roof is also low-pitched and they are usually constructed on a concrete slab.
When people talk about rambler houses they could very well be referring to ranch houses or single-story houses. Furthermore, there is absolutely no difference between a rambler house and a ranch style house. Nowadays, even one-story homes that have basements are referred to as ramblers or ranches, the year of construction is no longer relevant. Some newer rambler style houses may be advertised as mid-century modern ramblers.
In 1931, Clifford May built the first rambler home. While promoting the new revolutionary concept he compared it to the ranch houses in the area of San Diego. The new style of houses was initially called Yankee versions of old ranch houses.
Rambler houses became popular during the increasing population of personal automobiles. Before personal cars were accessible to the general public, people relied on the streetcar system in the suburbs. During the time when streetcars and buses were the main means of transportation through the suburbs, the house lots and houses themselves covered smaller patches of land. It was easier to use streetcars or buses if you didn’t have a long walk to the streetcar lines.
Following World War II, with the independence provided by personal automobiles, there was no longer a need for compact houses and small lots as streetcars became obsolete. The distance from the house to the streetcar line was irrelevant and that made lots growing bigger and houses sprawled on the much larger lot. The new house design was more accessible on bigger lots and its popularity grew. At that time it became possible for houses to have more facade width as lots were larger than ever before.
As a side note, while “rambler” is considered nowadays to be a synonym of “ranch” and “single story house”, looking up in the dictionary you’ll find that “rambler” is a synonym of “sprawled” which is a perfect word to describe how a rambler covers more land space.