DIY Building & Installing

Top Priorities and Tips for 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.
Adding an In-Law Suite Keeps Family Close

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Job loss, broken retirement nest eggs, and declining health 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.
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Define priorities when establishing an in-law suite.

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.

Next, consider accessibility and try to keep the in-law suite on the first floor if possible.

“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.

Finally, prioritize privacy for all generations.

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)’s Oregon chapter. “Respecting others’ space and privacy has been important to all the families I have worked with.”

Creating an In-Law Suite at Home

Find space around your home, or create it.

Assess your home to determine the best possible space for the in-law suite. By repurposing existing rooms or rearranging a floorplan, these five ideas fit a suite into a home’s current square footage:

  • The garage or a porch that can be enclosed and transformed into living space are two possibilities, says Patterson.
  • Basements can be made liveable if they have adequate outside egress.
  • Combining two bedrooms to create a suite is another possibility. Buckner says that homes with four bedrooms transformed into 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.
  • Underused first-floor living space such as a formal living room or dining room can be replaced or eliminated, Gibbs suggests.
  • An upper floor or a bonus room over the garage can become an in-law suite, though an elevator or chairlift might be needed.

If there’s not enough room in the existing footprint of the home, an addition can create 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 the 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 a vacancy.”

RELATED: All You Need to Know About Granny Pods

More and more homeowners are converting their houses into multigenerational homes for themselves, their children, and their aging parents. Howard Brickman, an old friend of the Bob Vila show who specializes in hardwood flooring installations, added space to his Norwell, MA, home to make room for his mother-in-law, who wanted to move closer to family. Brickman also wanted to be able to help her if she needed it. The walls and floor of the addition were built of energy-efficient Reddi-Form insulated concrete forms (ICFs). ICFs work like building blocks to make light work of foundations and walls. These forms are designed to use less concrete and still carry the load of a soaring 20-foot-gable end wall. Once the shell has been poured, a specialized framing system for the deck or interior floors of the home is set in place for the concrete pour. This high-efficiency, thermally smart home also has a solar roof to help reduce the family’s utility bills and usage. Air quality is a top priority, so all steps were taken to dry the house completely and stop mold from starting once the walls were put up. A deck, beautiful windows, flooring, a fireplace faced in stone, doors, and worry-free trim complete this new, multigenerational home.

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Design spaces within the in-law suite.

Once the space has been chosen, decide what can be included. A separate bathroom and adequate storage in the bedroom sitting area are essential. Separate washer- dryers (stackables are a good option here) might be included in the bathroom closet area.

A separate entrance and kitchen can take it to another level. But separate cooking facilities and separate entrances, Gibbs cautions, may actually pose zoning code issues. The code might consider the space a freestanding apartment that can be rented out, which might be prohibited in a neighborhood zoned for single-family occupancy. For this reason, he says, “we rarely incorporate a full kitchen but may design what is labeled as a wet bar.”

Buckner has found similar issues. “In most jurisdictions in Oregon, you’re prohibited from having two complete kitchens in a residence,” she says. “Basically you can include a kitchenette, which is everything except a cooktop-oven. Depending on the age and circumstances with clients, I have designed various options. A kitchenette would include a sink, dishwasher, refrigerator, and microwave. Some include just having a minibar refrigerator, sink, and microwave. Another option is to have no kitchen facilities and eat communally with the family.”

Where regulations allow, Buckner says, “separate entrances are commonly requested and planned for in the design. Usually, this scenario involves parents with good mobility who can still drive and care for themselves. They just need a little extra support—whether financial, physical, or psychological. Perhaps their spouse has died and they are lonely. Half of the projects with two master suites that I have designed have had their own access to decks, patios, and/or egress to the street.”

Tips for Designing Spaces within the In-Law Suite

Heed these design tips when creating a versatile, livable in-law suite.

As the in-law suite is created, remember that the occupants of the suite may change, so keep the basic design attractive for any future occupants. Here are some other essentials to keep in mind:

  • Make areas of the suite as spacious as possible.
  • Incorporate universal design principles not only in the suite but also throughout the house if possible. These designs can include no-slip flooring, considerations for height and reachability, wider doorways, grab bars, and handrails. Make sure the suite has some relationship to public areas of the home.
  • Install separate light, heat, and air-conditioning controls as well as smoke, fire, and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Choose easy-open door and drawer hardware and install overhead and hand-held showerheads.
  • Place electrical outlets on both sides of the bed.
  • Install a separate phone line, Internet connection, and cable jacks, and perhaps a stereo system unique to the suite.
  • Consider installing emergency call buttons or at least a jack.
  • Choose materials that ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the occupants.