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'Split living': families share elegant homes

Would Ozzie and Harriet have lived like this? Would you or your friends?

It looks like a stylish new California house from the street - nice, but standard fare. It isn't. In fact, it is a trial balloon for a concept foreign to these classically suburban tracts.

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The house is built for more than one family, but it's not a duplex, where two units share a common wall and some utilities. Here, as many as three families will share a front door, living room, family room, kitchen, yard, and porches. Only the bedroom suites are altogether private.

The idea is that a room of one's own may be all some people need.

The builder calls this model home Style Setter '80s, and modestly suggests that it will ''shape the future of housing in California and the nation.''

The house is not a first. The idea of ''split living,'' as it's called, has been around since the early 1970s, when some dual-master-bedroom homes were built for the ''empty nester'' market - families with grown children that visited.

But this model is an elegant, trendish version of that idea. With an indoor, solar-heated spa, a lot of open space, and a platform studio-office hovering over the living area beneath the solar chimney, the house is energy self-sufficient under normal conditions.

The classy design made the concept more acceptable to neighbors who at first balked at the idea of a shared house among their single-family, unattached homes.

Some cities have zoning ordinances against unrelated people sharing the same household. Some homebuyers - probably most, in fact - just won't like the idea. This house - which has hosted some 15,000 visitors in its first two months - is at least an attempt to give the idea some respectability.

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''The idea of this place was to show that you can have a private apartment within a house,'' says the architect, Barry Berkus, of his design strategy. A buyer can use the two bedroom suites however he chooses, of course, but the house is designed to be shared.

There are several ways ownership be can be set up, according to the California Association of Realtors. One party could buy the home and lease half of it to another family, or the two families could arrange a shared equity agreement. That situation could create some sticky legal problems in matters such as insuring the house and paying for upkeep or damages. These potential snags have yet to appear.

There are two reasons for the split living style: First, Ozzie and Harriet, the television couple who typified middle-class life in the '50s, would have a tough time today starting out in the southern California housing market. An average home in metropolitan California sold for $122,500 in May, according to Security Pacific National Bank.

Second, Ozzie-and-Harriet-type families with a full-time housewife and covey of children are no longer the norm they once were.

''In the last 10 years, there's been a complete change in buyer types,'' says Randall Lewis, vice-president and marketing director for Lewis Homes, which built Style Setter '80s. Only a third of them now are ''Ozzie, Harriet, and the kids.''

Like car makers in Detroit, he adds, home builders haven't kept pace with the changing consumer. (Through no fault of their own, says another housing marketer , who blames environmental regulations for holding the industry in slow motion.) Shared homes are one way of adapting the housing stock to new conditions.

''We're just a typical builder who wanted to do something pioneering,'' says Mr. Lewis. They got the chance when the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturing Association wanted a stylish showcase for three-dimensional asphalt shingles and sponsored the project.

Lewis Homes is using it for their own ends. ''We'll take ideas from here - what people like, don't like - and apply them to smaller homes,'' says Mr. Lewis. So far, salesmen say, people either love the place or hate it.

Many of the split living homes now on the market are at the lower end of the California price scale, in the $80,000 range. Lewis Homes is trying out about 10 houses - each about a third of the size of the Style Setter - in Las Vegas.

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