At first glance, you may think – that home looks like a barn or something straight out of a history book? Or, if you live in Providence or renting a house in Middletown, CT (or somewhere else on the east coast), maybe you’ve driven past these iconic homes before. But how can you know it’s a saltbox house? Where did they get their name? And, most importantly, should you consider buying one? We’ll tell you all about these colonial-era homes and what you should know before purchasing a slice of history.

History of the saltbox house

Saltbox houses are a sweet, quintessential east coast architectural style that appeared around the same time as colonial-style homes. The first saltboxes were built in the mid-1600s, meaning they have quite a long history in the United States. Saltbox houses get their name from wooden salt containers that people had in their homes during the 17th and 18th centuries. During this era, people ground their own salt from larger rocks of salt and stored it in a small, wooden box with a steep, pitched roof. Saltbox houses are named after saltboxes because they have a similar shape with its sloped roof. 

Where are saltbox homes located?

If you’ve ever seen a saltbox house, chances are it was either along the coast or in a more rural area. And, it may have been in the middle of a field without other properties close by. This is because saltbox-style homes were traditionally owned by farmers and families who lived off the land. You may also notice that these homes have very steep roofs. These slanted roofs allowed snow from harsh New England winters to fall off the roof easily, without someone having to climb onto the roof. So, saltbox houses were and continue to be a very practical choice for homeowners living in snowy climates. 

How were they constructed?

Historically owned by farmers, saltbox architecture was typically an economical choice due to its smaller size, around 1,000 square feet. Although building them took considerable time due to the post-and-beam style of construction, this construction method also allowed homeowners to use fewer metal nails, which were very expensive at the time. 

Post-and-beam style construction was often a popular choice because it helps make homes more fire-resistant. Many homes built later in the 18th century used a technique called balloon framing. While balloon framing is a faster construction method, there is no beam in the center of the home’s roof to stop fires from spreading. Although it took a little longer, this made post-and-beam construction better and safer for homeowners.

attic space with wood beams

How much do they cost?

The saltbox style also allowed owners to save money by avoiding the tax on two-story homes which was in effect throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Most saltboxes started off as small, two-story homes. But, when Queen Anne enacted a tax on two-story houses, people added one-story, lean-to additions to the back of their homes. This allowed them to avoid the tax by taking advantage of a loophole. For these reasons, saltbox homes were a very popular choice, and many are still standing today.

Famous saltbox houses

Many saltbox houses are historical sites maintained by well-known historical societies, and tourists can go and visit them today. Past presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both born in saltbox houses which are now owned and managed by the National Parks Service. Another notable home is the Josiah Day House, located in West Springfield, MA, which is believed to be the first saltbox home constructed with brick. Two other historic saltbox houses are the Hoxie House, which may be the oldest home on Cape Cod, and the Pettengill House, located in Freeport, ME, which was owned by a family who ran a saltwater farm nearby. 

Modern interpretations of saltbox style homes

Modern saltbox style houses play with the traditional architecture. Some modern versions have a breezeway between the house and an add-on, like a garage. Another common addition is a shed dormer, which creates an attic space. Some homes use metal siding, rather than the traditional wood clapboard siding, giving them a modern touch.

Other architects lengthen both sides of the saltbox home to increase the square footage, which creates a home like a ranch-style house. While this decreases the steepness of the roof which is characteristic of saltbox architecture, the homeowners get more square footage. Some builders add a whole wall of windows to help bring in nature and nearby landscapes into the home.

white saltbox style home in the middle of a field

Characteristics of the saltbox house

There are many features that easily identify traditional saltbox houses. Here are some of the main characteristics of historic saltbox homes.

Construction

Saltbox houses utilize post-and-beam construction and are made with a timber frame. They are a two-story home with a one-story, lean-to addition in the back. This addition is covered with a steep, asymmetrical roof, called a catslide roof. Traditionally, they didn’t have additional buildings like a carriage house or garage. Saltbox homes range from about 1,000-3,000 square feet, although some modern versions are even larger. More often they’re a smaller size and blend in with their surroundings.

Exterior

On the outside, saltbox houses have a flat, front façade that faces the street and usually has five or nine rectangular windows. The home’s exterior is usually finished with clapboard siding made out of dense, sturdy woods such as cherry, oak, and walnut. However, some homes have brick on the outside instead, like the Josiah Day house. 

They may be unpainted, resulting in a weathered wood look. Or, they may be painted a simple color such as blue, green, or white to reflect the surrounding landscape. Sometimes, window trim will be painted “barn red,” but it’s usually painted the same color as the exterior of the house.

The roof is often covered with asphalt shingles or wood shakes. And, they almost always have a chimney that rises from the center of the home. Historically, the fireplace was located below the central chimney and heated the whole home from the center out. 

natural elements in a home's interior, including a stone fireplace

Interior

On the inside, saltbox homes take advantage of natural light and highlight views of the surrounding landscape. They often have large windows, or lots of smaller windows, to feature the trees outside and to let in plenty of natural light. They usually have high, sloped ceilings, creating a light and airy interior. There’s typically an attic space since the steep roof leaves room for small storage space at the height of the home. Finally, like the exterior, the interior design and color scheme are typically simple and resemble nature.

Types of saltbox houses

There are many different styles of saltbox homes. They’re very similar to each other but vary in details and the number of windows. Below are the most common styles of saltbox houses listed in chronological order, so you can see how they evolved over time.

Early saltbox house style

Early saltbox houses are some of the first versions built during the colonial period. They featured five windows on the front façade, and the “front” door was actually on the back of the house. 

Plymouth saltbox house style

The Plymouth saltbox was the first to put the door on the front of the home — others almost always had the door on the back. Popular in the early 1700s, the Plymouth style house also has five windows on the exterior. 

Concord saltbox house style

Concord-style houses were most popular in the mid-1700s and featured the same five windows on the front façade making them a simpler home. 

Boston saltbox house style

Common in the late 1700s is the Boston saltbox house style. It was slightly larger and more ornate than the Concord style house as it featured nine windows on the front of the home. 

Farmington saltbox house style

The Farmington saltbox has a unique feature unlike its predecessors. It has a gable addition on the roof, meaning the sides are slightly extended. These gable additions created more space in the attic and could even transform the attic into a loft or another room, especially with the addition of dormer windows. Like the Boston style, Farmington style homes also have nine windows on the exterior and were most popular in the late 1700s.

Portsmouth saltbox house style

The Portsmouth saltbox house is perhaps the most ornate of the saltbox styles. Like the Boston and Farmington homes, Portsmouth-style homes have nine windows on the front facade. They often have three, small, additional windows on the top floor. A gambrel roof – a two-sided sloped roof – on the top floor creates more living space and room for small windows. Due to their larger size and more detailed, decorative trim, Portsmouth style homes were popular with wealthier homeowners. The latest of the saltbox styles, this home was most popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

Where can you typically find saltbox houses?

Saltbox houses are often located on the east coast. They are most commonly found along the coast, ranging from southern Maine down through Connecticut and Rhode Island. While you may be able to find them in other parts of the country, it’s rare because of their iconic and historical roots in New England. However, you may find saltbox houses in more rural and less populated areas, surrounded by trees or fields.

home with a sloped roof and view of mountains

The pros and cons of saltbox architecture

Like any kind of home, saltboxes have their own pros and cons. Here are some points to consider if you’re looking to purchase one of these historic homes.

Pros of saltbox houses

Historic roots: First, you’d be the owner of a home that has long, historical roots in this country. So, if you buy a historical saltbox, you can play with the Colonial-style touches in the home and take pride in owning a unique piece of history.

Simple construction: There are benefits to building a saltbox from scratch too. Their construction is fairly simple, which means they won’t take years to build. And, of course, your home will take advantage of beautiful, local views while blending in beautifully with the surrounding landscape. 

More fire-resistant: Additionally, saltboxes feature a center beam through the roof which makes them more fire-resistant than other home styles.

Cons of saltbox houses

Harder to find: Because saltbox houses are not the most common, you may have trouble finding one that is for sale.

Style restrictions: If you’re buying a historical saltbox home, you may find it difficult to decorate the home in a way that balances the modern and historical nature of the home. Additionally, if your home is located in a historic district you may have restrictions as to upgrades you can make to the exterior.

Size: Lastly, if you’re looking for a large, sprawling home, original saltbox houses may not be for you. However, don’t rule out a larger, more modern take on these homes.

How to find saltbox houses for sale in your area

People are interested in saltbox houses for many reasons. First, they were one of the first home styles to appear in the United States. So, if you are curious about this historic architecture, you may want to check out some saltboxes on your next trip east. Or, if you’re considering moving, you may be interested in building or buying a saltbox-style house. 

If a saltbox-style house suits your style, Redfin can help you find one in your area. Most, if not all, east coast-area realtors and others around the country will be familiar with saltbox architecture and will likely be able to show you a few homes as they come available in the local housing market. 

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