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Adding an In-Law Suite
With the number of multigenerational households increasing, an in-law suite can be one way to accommodate the change. But creating one takes planning and understanding.
- Photo: dougbrownconstruction.com
Job loss and broken retirement nest eggs may encourage more Americans to consider moving in with their adult children. It’s important, however, that this new living space allows privacy and independence for all.
The benefits of inviting relatives to cohabit include combining incomes to maintain a single household, shutting down homes in the off-season to save on utility and maintenance costs, and creating a sense of permanence for seniors instead so they don’t feel they have to rotate among children to avoid inconveniencing any one household. And, as the old saying goes, two can eat as cheaply as one.
Data compiled by AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and over, shows an increase in multigenerational households from 5 million, or 4.8 percent of all U.S. households, in 2000 to 6.2 million, or 5.3 percent of all households, in 2008.
From its research, AARP also notes that:
- 24 percent of baby boomers anticipate that their parents or in-laws will move in with them
- About one-half say they would be happy to have their parents or in-laws move in
- 51 percent say they would feel obligated to help in their parents’ retirement
- 17 percent would be “eager” to find their parents or in-laws another living arrangement
- 8 percent of boomers would charge their parents rent.
Define Priorities and Make Plans
There’s no strict definition of an in-law suite, but generally it’s a private living area within a house. Most experts say it should have a private full bathroom and a door that separates it from the rest of the home. Some suggest that, if possible, it should also have a separate entrance and kitchen, especially if the living situation will be long-term.
The first item on a suite project list is to check local planning and subdivision regulations. Requirements for multigenerational family living spaces can vary drastically across the country.
The next consideration is accessibility. “Many people have been making provisions for first-floor housing to make visits by aging relatives easier for some years,” says Jamie Gibbs, principal of the New York-based interior design and landscape architecture firm Jamie Gibbs and Associates. “Now we see those quarters being used for much longer stretches of time, perhaps permanently. Forty percent of my new-construction clients request incorporating first-floor guest accommodations, usually suites. Sixty percent of my renovation projects request first-floor bedchambers and full baths, additional closets, and, in some cases, full guest suites.” If a first-floor suite is not an option, Gibbs suggests considering an elevator to make all floors accessible or a chairlift added to the main or secondary stairs.
A third priority is privacy. Not providing enough privacy is a common pitfall, says Diana L. Patterson, an interior designer in Tucson. “This is a big and sometimes difficult transition,” she says.
“Not only do the homeowners that live in the house want to maintain their privacy, but they don’t want to know everything about their parents either,” says Marlene Buckner of Portland, Ore., owner of the Urban Realm and a past president of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)—Oregon. “Respecting others’ space and privacy has been important to all families I have worked with.”
Assess your home to determine the best possible space for the in-law suite. The garage or a porch area that can be enclosed and transformed into living space are two possibilities, says Patterson. Basements can also be used with if they have adequate outside egress.
Combining two bedrooms to create a suite is another possibility. Buckner says that homes with four bedrooms transformed to two suites, one guest room, and an office are efficient, sellable, marketable, and desired in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives and works. “In a three-bedroom house, reducing the home to two suites by combining two bedrooms is also very sellable and pleasurable to live in,” she says.
Another option is to build an addition to accommodate a new master suite. Usually the homeowners move into the new addition and remodel or upgrade their original suite for their parents or grandparents, says Buckner. Another possibility is to convert a third bay of a garage into a separate apartment-type living space with its own access. “This encourages privacy and autonomy,” she says, “and can be rented to someone else in the event of vacancy.”
Gibbs suggests that homeowners might want to consider replacing or eliminating an underused first-floor living space — such as a formal living room or dining room — or to create a suite on an upper floor or in a bonus room over the garage, though an elevator or chairlift might be needed.
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