Category: Managing Construction

Open Floor Plans: Is This Design Right for You?

Before you knock down walls and make the switch to an open floor plan, here are a few things to take into consideration.

Open Floor Plans

Photo: St. James Canter

Postwar bungalows and midcentury ranches fill much of the prime downtown residential areas in Huntsville, AL, a thriving city of 350,000 people. The housing market hasn’t taken the hit that many other cities have experienced, and Huntsville Realtor Amanda Power of Keller Williams Realty says the high-value locations of these older homes make them prime candidates for modern renovations. In addition to remodeling bathrooms and refinishing hardwood floors, many homeowners in Huntsville are opening up their homes—formerly compartmentalized spaces.

Having an open mind about open floor plans is paying off for these renovation-minded homeowners, according to Power. “Open floor plans absolutely sell better,” she says. “They fit in with today’s family life, but they also make the renovations seem bigger and more up-to-date.”

But while free-flowing floor plans may be hot, they’re not right for everyone. So how can you know if opening up your space will work for you? Here are some guidelines.

Consider Your Home’s Structure
First, consider what “open floor plan” means and that different homeowners have different definitions. “There are different types of open spaces,” says Peggy Hlobil-Emmenegger, principal at UCArchitect in Toronto. “For example, one may open up an entire floor so the space flows horizontally, or one may open up the entire house through interconnected spaces so the space flows vertically.”

An open design can be incorporated into any existing home with varied results, dependent on the size of the house, number of stories, structural integrity of the outer shell, location of plumbing and ductwork, and existing structural supports. It’s always critical to talk to a structural engineer before you begin an open-space renovation, but if you’re working on a home built before 1980 or so, it’s especially important. “Older houses are structurally set up for divided spaces,” says Seattle-based architect Milan Heger. Because of issues with floor and ceiling joist lengths in older homes, he says, it can be very costly to open up some historic homes’ interiors. “Any renovation that starts with divided spaces and intends to create open spaces is tricky and by all means requires a structural engineer,” he says. “No one should take it upon themselves to take out structural walls without a structural engineer involved. The seismic strength and lateral stability of the building is essential to protect the people inside.”

Another practical consideration when thinking about opening up your floor plan is the placement of spaces like bathrooms and stairwells. Brenda Be, principal of Mosaik Design in Portland, OR. During the many renovations in which she has opened up living spaces, Lord learned what the most common potential pitfalls are with these boundary-free floor plans. “Unless you live alone, you really have to ask yourself, ‘Am I okay with sharing this space?’” she says. “Imagine somebody’s clanging pots and pans in the kitchen while someone else is trying to watch something on one TV and maybe a child is trying to watch something on another TV. Those are big considerations to think about.”

Another consideration is that your old furniture might not work in the new space. When designing spaces, Lord works with clients to make sure they have the right furniture for the new look and feel of their home.

And if you have children, consider that your space will now be their space and vice-versa. Kricken Yaker, a partner at Vanillawood, a Portland, OR–based design-build firm, creates open floor plan spaces for many clients. A mother herself, she understands the need to come up with a space that works for the whole family. “Especially when you have younger children, you can still capture some sort of space within the house that is kind of the flop room,” she says, noting that half-walls, screens, and sliding wall barriers can be a good middle ground for families who love to be together but who still occasionally need to have separate spaces.

Designers say solutions like these will usually work for homeowners who want to live in open-space floor plans. “Most of today’s existing homes have an outdated layout with wasted spaces such as narrow hallways, cramped rooms, and unused guest bedrooms that don’t at all reflect today’s changes in lifestyle or our society,” says Hlobil-Emmenegger. “More and more people are starting to realize this and are looking for home designs that reflect their uniqueness.”

If you think opening up your home from the inside out will work for you, here are some tips to help smooth the transition to a less constrained house plan.

Open Floor Plan


Prepare for Decorating Changes and Challenges
If you have an Italian buffet or heirloom Persian rug that you love, be sure to mention it to your architect or designer. “When you’re doing something fresh and new and then you move in all your old furniture, it can be quite a letdown if we haven’t designed around the furniture,” says Lord, who designs around homeowners’ prized possessions to ensure that they work well in the new plan. “But more often than not, the homeowners’ furniture doesn’t work anymore, and they want to live differently in this new and different space. After all, that’s why they remodeled in the first place.”

Another potential pitfall is the new acoustics that come with very open spaces. With fewer walls and sometimes higher ceilings, homeowners may experience issues like echoing or cross-room conversations that sound garbled and less crisp. “The easiest way to address this is with the right window treatments and floor coverings,” says Kati Curtis, principal of Nirmada Interior Design in New York City. “Softer materials can absorb sound yet not detract from the open, airy feel of the space.”

The smaller details may get lost when you’re considering larger issues like determining if taking out a wall will cause your roof to collapse, but if you don’t take the time to think about them, you won’t like your open floor plan lifestyle nearly as much. “If your kitchen is open to the rest of the house, think about investing in that really quiet dishwasher or raising an island bar a few more inches so you can’t see the kitchen when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV,” Lord says. “If you don’t want to have to do dishes every night but you don’t want to look at clutter, go ahead and get that extra-deep sink where you can hide your dirty plates.”

Be sure to consult with your designer about places in the home where you need storage. “If your child’s play area or your office is located in the open area, make sure everything has a place and can be put away when guests come for dinner,” Curtis says.

The Bottom Line: Choose What Works for You
“You either love it or hate it, and people should think hard before deciding for a costly remodel,” Heger says. “On the other hand, once you get the ‘bug’ of living in a loftlike space, you may never go back to a traditional house.”

Make sure an open space reflects your personality. Designers say that opening up your home can be like opening up your life. If you’re a very private person, you may not enjoy life without walls, even if it appeals to you aesthetically. “Open floor plan is modern, contemporary, artistic, urban, and social all at the same time,” Heger says. “My clients usually love other people, company, and friends. I’m not a psychologist, but there’s something about this connection. Open floor plans have no secrets.”

The Challenge of Electronics in Open Floor Plans
When you’re looking for a light socket, cable outlet, or phone jack, you usually go straight to the nearest wall. But in open floor plans, plugging into the nearest wall may mean running unsightly wires under rugs, around baseboards, or, worst of all, across a walking area. If you’re thinking of knocking down walls, keep the following advice in mind, courtesy of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA):

  • Hidden installations: Electronic systems contractors (ESCs) can create hidden installations where home electronics blend seamlessly into the living area, storing bulky components in one central location like a closet or cabinet.
  • Wiring: It’s important for architects to incorporate wiring systems into floors and ceilings, so they’ll reach throughout the house without dragging wires and cables all over the place.
  • Integrate controls: If you’re redesigning electrical and wiring systems, consider choosing an integrated control system that will allow you to activate lighting, control HVAC levels, open and close window treatments, and manage media components in central locations. “Open plan spaces are especially tough when it comes to locating the switches and control interfaces found in a modern home,” says Ray Lepper, president of

Live In or Move Out: The Remodeling Dilemma

You’re about to sign the contract for a major home renovation. When the construction crew arrives, is it time to go? Experts and homeowners weigh the pros and cons of staying put or moving out.


If there’s one thing that can mar the excitement of a home remodeling project it’s the nightmare of living through it. Just ask the Gargers of Hicksville, NY. A planned 16-week renovation of their three-bedroom Cape Cod–style home turned into a 14-month ordeal.

The low point? Pick one. It could have been when the entire family — husband Tom, wife Dolores, two children, and two dogs — was forced to sleep in a single room for nearly four months. Or when Tom became trapped behind a cascading pile of boxes in a storage shed for 20 minutes before managing to crawl out. “It was moments like that I had to keep a good humor about things,” he says.

Deciding whether to live at home or move out during a renovation is a tough call. The disruption of relocating to new surroundings, coupled with the added expense, is enough to make many homeowners put up with the challenges. Others, however, can’t wait to get as far away as possible from the dust, drilling, and distractions. “Despite the inconvenience of living through a remodeling, the one huge advantage is that you’re able to monitor the contractor’s progress every day,” says interior designer Linda Bettencourt, owner of Centerstage, in San Francisco. Bettencourt has lived through two renovations of her own and says that being on site to address issues as they arise can save time and money. “Requests come up,” she says. “Things happen. It’s good to communicate with the contractor on a regular basis. Homeowners get into the most trouble when they’re not there. That’s when the time frame and budget can go out the window.”

Live-In Strategies
The Gargers briefly considered renting a house during their massive renovation. After all, they were increasing the size of their home by 75 percent. In the end, they say it was lucky they didn’t move. The renovation was scheduled to take 16 to 18 weeks. It took 14 months. “We’d be bankrupt,” Tom says about the prospect of paying rent on a second residence. Homeowners who decide to move into temporary digs need to factor in additional housing expenses above and beyond the cost of remodeling.

And think worst-case scenarios, advises Dolores. “The rule of thumb is to double what the contractor says,” she says. “But having lived through it, I’d say quadruple it and then double it again.”

If you decide to stay put, to preserve your sanity have your contractor set up at least one sealed-off, construction-free zone and make it your go-to place to escape the chaos. Having workers swarming your home feels very invasive. Set ground rules on crew access so you know when the house is your own and when the workers take over. “Nothing is worse than emerging from the shower to see a contractor on the roof through your skylight,” says Bettencourt.

Debbie Weiner, of My Design Solutions, in Silver Spring, MD, just completed two large remodeling projects in which her clients had no choice but to live through what she describes as “the early-morning noise, the Dumpsters tearing up the lawn, the dust, the inconvenience, the lack of privacy, and the general hell that goes with major remodeling while living at home.”

Weiner says to minimize health-related problems, pack up clothing and bedding that you won’t be using in space-saving, vacuum-sealed bags to keep them clean and dust-free. Cover ducts with plastic. And “turn off air conditioning and heating systems during the day, if possible, to keep air from circulating through the house,” she says.

Insist that your crew conduct daily cleanups. Linda Minde, co-owner of Tri-Lite Builders, a residential remodeling company in Chandler, AZ, says that her crews not only put up plastic barriers between rooms and lay runners on the floor but also use portable scrubbers that purify the air of dust and chemical fumes.

Exit Strategies
The reality is that living day in and day out in a construction zone is grueling. It’s loud and dirty. Your quality of life suffers, and, sometimes so does your ability to function as a family. “If that’s more than people can handle,” Bettencourt says, “they’re going to have to move out.”

Some make their great escape to a relative’s home or an extended-stay residence hotel. Others seek out long-term house-sitting arrangements or RV rentals. At a minimum, timing a vacation to coincide with the demolition —the messiest part of a remodeling —is a smart idea.

Create a checklist if you do opt for alternative quarters. There are a lot of issues to consider, big and small: How will a new address affect commuting distances to work and school? Will you need to forward your mail and phone calls? Stop your newspapers? Put a hold on your cable and find a new Internet service provider, or go wireless?

From Minde’s perspective as a builder, working in an unoccupied home is a lot more productive for her crews. “We can tell a homeowner we’ll make it as easy and painless as possible, but the first few weeks are really bad,” she says. “We can get it done quicker if you’re out. We get in and we get moving.” She says it can also be more economical for the homeowner. The cost of paying for temporary lodging can sometimes be offset by a stepped-up construction schedule. And, she adds, there’s an emotional benefit to “not having to listen to it, see it, hear it or smell it.”

Professionals say that if you decide to move out, keep close tabs on the progress. Visit the property regularly to monitor the pace and quality of the work. Make sure you’re easily reachable in case there are any decision that have to be made quickly to avoid holding up any part of the process. And visit your home during off hours to make sure it’s properly secured.

“Treat the experience as an adventure and know that one day soon it will end,” says Bettencourt. “Once everyone leaves, you’ll have the beautiful home you always wanted. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

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.

In-Law Suite

Photo: Eric Stengel Architecture

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.

Combine Households
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.”

Find Space
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.


Design Spaces within the Space
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 to Remember
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 shower heads.
  • Place electrical outlets on both sides of the bed. Consider installing emergency call buttons or at least a jack. Install a separate phone line, Internet connection, and cable jacks, and perhaps a stereo system unique to the suite.
  • Choose materials that ensure the health, safety. and welfare of the occupants.

Expanding a Home to Create an In-Law Suite
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 home.

Working with Your Architect

If you're embarking on a major project, choosing the right architect can save you time, money, and trouble.

Working with an Architect


Hiring an architect should save you time and money, minimize bumps, streamline the building process, and provide an accurate picture of how the project will turn out before a single nail has been driven.

Architectural services should be calculated as part of the project cost, typically just under 10 percent of the building budget. What you pay for is the ability to see many different aspects of a project—the homeowner’s needs, the material and spatial constraints, the timetable, the cost, the permits, and the possibility—through one set of professional eyes.

“Architects bring a global vision to the very complicated process of building,” says architect Greg Colling of The Classic Group, a Boston-based architectural firm specializing in classic home design. A good architect can see obstacles in your project you would never anticipate and easy solutions you might never find.

Selecting an Architect
You will be spending a great deal of time with the architect you choose, as well as living and working in the space he or she designs, so take the time to find the right person for the job. Several search engines for architects exist on the Web. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) maintains an up-to-date, searchable database of their architects.

Find an architect with sensibility similar to you own. Ask to see photos of recent jobs or visit some finished projects to get a feel for the architect’s design sense and preferences. Ask how or why the designer decided on certain solutions, finishes, or schemes. If you like the architect’s past work, chances are you will find common ground. You will talk often and need to work your way through many issues, so make sure that you can converse easily and understand one another readily. If you are restoring an older home, the architect should have experience with period buildings. Typically, historic homes necessitate much more stringent building codes and additional permits.

Preliminary Meetings
An architect helps the homeowner pinpoint the goals of the project. Often, the initial answer— more space, an updated kitchen—leads to more questions from the architect. How is the space going to be utilized and by whom? How often? At what time of day? Be prepared with these answers ahead of time to enhance the discussion and the architect’s ability to make the most of your space. Working with Colling, David Masher identified several goals for his historical home’s kitchen remodel. The Mashers wanted to increase flow both within the home and to the outdoors, improve the lighting, and create a family space for cooking, entertaining, and working. A good architect allows for communication both ways, which ultimately benefits the project. “A homeowner’s needs and wishes are transformed through an architect’s sensitivity and creative process,” Colling says. The Mashers would agree. “We came together to find the right answers for our home,” Masher says of the space he now calls a dream home.

Drawing Up a Set of Plans
When working well with an architect, the savings are there from the start in terms of time and money. Colling says when he first sat down with the Mashers, he drew some “kitchen table sketches” based on their conversation. He also asked Jeanne Masher to find some examples in architecture magazines to “help her articulate her likes and dislikes.” During this planning phase, the architect will also survey the property and look into building regulations and requirements, Colling says.

The architect will produce a more definitive direction for your project and a set of design drawings based on these initial discussions and rough plans. A definite budget will also be prepared as the design becomes clearer. “Thorough drawings” make it easier for the contractor to accurately price and build your project,” according to the AIA. Colling drew up four pages of electrical plans for the Mashers. “That way the contractor had no questions, nothing was left to chance,” David Masher says. No unanswered questions means no time or money wasted in the middle of construction searching for answers, a huge savings for any homeowner.

The architect’s drawings also give a first look at how the space will be transformed. Seeing an accurate rendering of the final product lets you know whether your vision and the architect’s truly match.

Architects as Project Managers
An architect will help you choose materials, color and design schemes, and builders and tradespeople that can bring your design to life. An architect can help you choose materials and finishes that are durable as well as beautiful, saving on frequent maintenance and replacement costs, according to the AIA. New building materials come out surprisingly often, and architects have knowledge of their quality and effectiveness. In the Masher home, innovative new materials were used in the kitchen countertop, on the deck, and under the deck.

If there is one element of building that the average do-it-yourselfer will have trouble with, it is the permitting process. “The architect assists the homeowner in filing documents required for review and approval by local building, zoning, landmark and/or historic commissions, and obtaining proposals and awarding the contract for construction,” Colling says. Building codes and zoning laws can get complicated—having an architect at your side will ensure they are filed properly, keeping your project on schedule.

While bringing the drawings to life using the materials specified is the job of the builder, a good architect will act as your agent in working with the contractor. As the contractors set to work assembling the architect’s vision, there are often obstacles. Having good chemistry between the architect and builder can turn a potential problem into a solution. In the Masher home, an unused chimney became a ready-made channel for pipes and wiring.

The architect administers the contract between the owner and contractor, including meeting with the contractor and vendors to answer any questions, review contractor submittals, address any field changes, reject nonconforming work, and review and certify payments. In other words, your architect makes certain the project goes according to plan, on budget, and on time. If a problem with a contractor does occur, most notably in the quality of the work, the architect will be your greatest ally.

Renovate Your Rental

More and more renters are adding personal touches to their temporary homes, and rental owners can benefit as well.

Renovate Your Rental

Photo: Flickr

When Jamie Kaneko was looking for a new home, she was excited to finally find a rental property large enough for her family. The five-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot house was perfect for her four children, but she did have one complaint: The bathroom was dated and in disrepair.

Instead of continuing her search, she decided to sign a lease for the Murray, Utah home and renovate the bathroom herself. She and her boyfriend tore out the existing shower and floor, repaired the plumbing, and retiled the entire bathroom. “We are trying to clean up our credit before we buy, and this really was the only way we could make the house our home—by adding personal touches and modifying to our taste,” Kaneko says.

This drive to personalize a space—even if it’s a rental that you don’t own, and even if you are spending money you won’t get back—is pure human nature, says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt. “It does not matter where you live, it is not temporary—it is yours. So, make it work for you,” Galt says. “When you are living in an environment that has been designed well and right for you, it will improve your health and it will improve the relationship that is going on in the space. You will have more interest in entertaining your friends. It will impact your entire life on so many levels.”

Kaneko is happy she did the work, and even happier that her landlord reimbursed her efforts in the form of refunded rent. In fact, they have several more projects planned for this year, including painting. “Some will be on our dime just because we want to have them done,” Kaneko says. “Renting isn’t ideal in the long run, but we feel like we are creating the home we want as we rent it. We may buy it next year.”

Making Renting Attractive
Industry experts say people like Kaneko are more likely to stay in their rental properties longer if they are given the freedom to personalize. That’s good for landlords and building owners because it’s easier to keep a tenant than to have to look for a new one.

“Years ago, owners said, ‘No way! I’m not going to let you do that,’” says Lisa Trosien, the self-proclaimed “Apartment Expert” and consultant to the multifamily housing industry. “But the thing that they found is, on average, if you rent or customize your unit, tenants will stay for about 30 months.”

And not all renters are transient. Some are so-called “lifestyle renters,” who don’t want to deal with the hassles of home ownership. Others are being forced to delay their dreams of home ownership because of economic concerns. In both cases, these are people who are planning to stay put and want to personalize their space.

Trosien has seen tenants add mirrored closet doors, change paint and wallpaper, bring in their own appliances, install new carpet or hardwood flooring, and change plumbing fixtures. Getting landlords to pay for these improvements is practically unheard of, she says. But in rental markets with high vacancy rates, where incentives such as “two months free rent” are used as lures, prospective tenants might be able to negotiate.

“If a would-be renter came to me and said, ‘I do not want the two months’ rent. I want hardwood floors;’ as an owner, I would do that in a heartbeat, because that is going to enhance the value of my asset,” Trosien says.

Some owners are seeing the cash benefit of allowing tenants to customize. At Avistele rental communities in Georgia and Florida, tenants are given the option of upgrading their home’s appliances, flooring, and countertops as well as adding steam showers and surround-sound media rooms. Here, owners are capitalizing on the idea that just because you rent doesn’t mean you can’t live in the home of your dreams.

Ask First
From a legal perspective, it is always best for tenants to ask before making any changes. If you want to take down a wall or put in a door between two apartments to “combine” them, you could be asking for trouble. You could be compromising the structural integrity of the building, and the landlord could be left with a space that violates local housing codes.

If you make changes without asking, you’re risking more than your security deposit. The landlord can sue you for the cost of returning the apartment to its original condition.

“If your security deposit is only $1,000, but it costs $1,500 to repaint the apartment, they can come after you for that,” says Michael Semko, counsel for the National Apartment Association. “Or, if you do something that damages the unit, not only would there be the repair costs, but if the owner can’t re-rent the unit, he or she might be able to get lost rent as well.”

For this reason, Semko recommends first asking the landlord for permission for anything that could potentially damage or change the rental unit. And get that approval in writing, he recommends.

Spruce Up Your Rental Home
Painting your rented apartment or house is “the fastest and most economical way to make a dramatic change,” says Atlanta interior designer Melissa Galt. But if you want to go beyond simply adding a splash of color, consider these do-it-yourself projects:

  • Install crown moldings, and go big—4 or even 6 inches. “A lot of apartments have low ceilings. Molding will lift the room,” Galt says.
  • Laminated cabinets often look—and are—dated. They can be painted if you prep the surface with a high-grip primer.
  • Replace the hardware on kitchen and bathroom cabinets and drawers. And because hardware can be pricey, keep the originals so you can replace them before you move out.
  • Update your kitchen floor with peel-and-stick vinyl tiles.
  • Tile paint allows you to change the color of your bathroom floor. But keep the paint outside of the bath area as too much moisture and humidity can make the paint peel.
  • A closet organization system such as Elfa is easy to install and will make the best of cramped closet space.
  • If the laminate countertops have seen better days, head to a stone distributor. Closeout prices on granite or marble remnants can make switching the surfaces relatively economical.

Protect Your Home from Job Site Theft

A remodeling project can leave you uniquely vulnerable, so follow these guidelines to help protect your home from job site theft.

Preventing Job Site Theft


Job site theft is a rampant and growing problem that costs the construction industry more than $1 billion a year, according to the National Association of Home Builders and the National Equipment Register. But the problem isn’t limited to new houses under construction — a home remodeling job is just as vulnerable. Here are some ways to secure your job site.

Every item on your job site is on a thief’s shopping list. Matt Dunston, developer of The Preserve at Walden, an 86-lot subdivision near Colorado Springs, CO, knows from experience. Over several months in 2007, six builders in his subdivision lost roughly $50,000 worth of tools and material—everything from tools and appliances to air conditioners and pallets of cultured stone—before he hired a private investigator to track down the thieves. The stone was a bit of a head-scratcher for Dunston, given its weight. “You have to be a very motivated thief to steal cultured stone,” he says.

With the rising fees paid by recyclers for copper, the theft of copper wiring and pipe is especially prevalent. It’s such a serious problem that more than 20 states have passed legislation regulating its sale to recycling centers. In Knoxville, TN, the police department has even created a special task force, the Metal Theft Unit. And not surprisingly, thieves aren’t very considerate about the damage they cause. Police reports show they’ll rip a wall apart to get to the copper wiring or pipes behind it, to say nothing of destroying air conditioners, furnaces, or water heaters. In Knoxville, a local television station reported that thieves did $25,000 worth of damage to a condominium project that was under construction to steal about $200 worth of copper.

Like most burglaries, job site theft typically is a crime of opportunity. Here are five strategies recommended by law enforcement, security experts, construction professionals, and insurance claims adjusters that you can use to make your job site more secure and less attractive to thieves.

1. Let there be lightand lots of it. Darkness is a thief’s best friend; a well-lit job site makes it much more difficult for a thief to arrive and leave unseen. The goal is to provide adequate and even lighting that eliminates shadows. Flood lights with motion detectors mounted on the eaves of the house, just like most homeowners have on the corners of their homes, are a great first line of defense.

2. Secure your tools and materials. If you leave your tools and materials sitting out at the end of the day, you might as well put a ‘Steal Me’ sign in the window. “A lot of thefts are at a job where the site is vulnerable,” Dunston says. “There’s lumber laying around or tools are not locked up securely.”

“I was on a job site last week — there was more stuff lying around than I’d seen in better hardware stores,” says Greg Wessling, chairman and CEO of Charlotte, NC-based HouseRaising, a third-party manager for custom home builders. “That’s unintelligent.” At the end of each workday, put everything in a secure location, such as a locking toolbox on a truck, a room with a deadbolt, or a storage shed with a padlock. And spend the money on a good lock, Wessling says.

3. Practice just-in-time delivery. The National Association of Home Builders Research Center recommends that you plan out your material deliveries carefully, with the materials delivered in the proper sequence (don’t have the windows delivered before the walls are up, for instance) and only take delivery of what you can install in one day. Additionally, some contractors never take delivery of materials on a Friday — and with good reason. The Tempe, AZ, police department reports that 90 percent of all job site equipment thefts occur between 6 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m. Monday, followed by holidays and weeknights. You don’t want stacks of valuable materials sitting around in boxes or on pallets. If you must take delivery early (to take advantage of a sale, for instance), lock materials up until you’re ready to install them.

4. Set a watch. Enlist the eyes and ears of your neighbors to keep an eye on the job site when you can’t be there. Let them know you’re working on a remodeling project. Give them your phone number. Tell them if they see anything suspicious, like a van that rolls up while all the lights at your house are off, they should call you immediately. When the job is finished, give them a small token of appreciation.

5. Mark and photograph your equipment and record the serial numbers. If you do have a theft, this is going to provide critical information for both a police report and an insurance claim. Etch your tools in two places — one obvious and one hidden — with your driver’s license number; it’s a number that’s tracked in all 50 states. (Don’t use your Social Security number; that would be as valuable to a thief as your property.) The serial number can be a tremendous help to police officers who often have searchable databases of the serial numbers of items taken to pawn shops.

Durwin Sauer, owner of Cutting Edge Carpentry in Des Moines, IA, adopted nearly all of these practices after thieves cleaned out his tools and equipment in two separate burglaries in the summer of 2007. He now uses job site lock boxes to secure his tools and a locked job site trailer with a hitch lock to store larger equipment, such as air compressors and ladders. He also makes sure the house is locked at the end of each day, keeps the keys in lock boxes, and changes the location of the keys “pretty frequently,” he says. Plus, he organizes his tools and materials by the phase of construction and has a list of the serial numbers of all his tools. He also lets neighbors know he’s working on a house and asks them to keep an eye on things when he’s not there. “I can’t believe how bold these guys are,” he says. “It blows my mind.”

The painful truth is that no job site is completely safe from a thief who is determined to take what doesn’t belong to him. But most thieves don’t want to work very hard. If you take the time and effort to make it tougher for them, they’ll look somewhere else.

First Step: Get a Permit

Here's your guide to getting a building permit from your municipality before starting construction work on your home.

Building Permits

Photo: Flickr

Building application and approval processes vary from town to town and district to district, but most municipalities will review plans and approve them directly through the building or planning office. Some will let you pay the fee and walk away with the permit to post in your window.

Other municipalities will require an appearance before the zoning or planning board prior to issuing approval. How closely they monitor your project and how difficult your permit is to obtain depend on a number of factors, primarily the size of the addition, whether it can be seen from the exterior, the degree to which it impacts the building footprint, and where your house is located.

In San Antonio, TX, a standard building permit for additions under 1,000 square feet that are a single story tall can be obtained immediately. “For a residential room addition of less than 1,000 square feet, all we need is a site plan showing the dimensions and setbacks,” says Jacob Sanchez of the San Antonio Building Department. Any addition that is more than 1,000 square feet or is two stories tall or more requires a plan review. “The review takes anywhere from 10 to 15 days,” Sanchez says. For an additional fee, homeowners can put a rush on their review, cutting the wait time to about five days.

Building Permits in Historic Districts
For buildings located in an historic district — be it Texas or Massachusetts — the process is much more involved. Many homeowners would say that the hardest part about renovating a historic structure is obtaining the permit. Each historic district has its own guidelines and process for reviewing designs and approving permits. For some, approval centers on creating an addition that is seamless, blends with the original structure, and is constructed of like materials. In Rowley, MA, David Masher had to show how the design and materials used would blend with the original facade of his 1890 Victorian home. Masher had reviewed the Historic District Commission (HDC) document that outlines acceptable and unacceptable practices and materials prior to his appearance before the commission. “We told them we were in complete compliance with their document. If anything, we’re bringing the house back to its original condition,” he says.

Masher’s addition is visible from the street, which triggers an automatic review and approval signoff from the Rowley Historic District Commission. Masher, who had been through prior approvals, knew to be prepared. “You have to know when they meet and be prepared,” he says. “I came with a full set of plans with four views. I left the plans and a request for review three weeks before the meeting,” he says. That gave the board time to review the plans and prepare questions for the presentation. With the signoff from the District Commission and approval from the Conservation Commission that oversees the wetlands that abut his property, Masher was on his way to obtaining all signoffs for the permit.

In San Antonio, all additions to historic properties are reviewed by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). “Certainly, they will review a visible addition with greater scrutiny than one that is in the back and concealed from the front,” says Brian Chandler, senior planner with the City of San Antonio Historic Preservation Office. All applications for additions require a complete set of plans with floorplans, elevations, a site plan, and relevant photos of the property. “The HDRC will look at the following factors: scale and massing in relation to the existing structure and for the district overall, and materials,” according to Chandler. The goal is to blend the addition into the existing structure while maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood around it.

Purpose of Permits
In all cases, the intention is the same — the goal of the permitting process is to ensure that safe, appropriate, and historically sensitive additions are made to local buildings. Masher has been through the process repeatedly and understands the goals of his local HDC. “The point is to keep the character of our historic district,” he says, and to ensure that existing architecture is cared for and improved whenever possible. Chandler adds that new additions and structures must fit within the context of the existing built landscape and demonstrate a certain “compatibility with the existing historic and architectural integrity of a district.”

Unlike the Rowley HDC, the HDRC of San Antonio does review the specific materials used for any addition to a structure within the historic district. The purpose is to ascertain that the materials selected will complement the existing building while remaining distinct from the original structure. “They encourage compatibility of design and materials without replicating,” Chandler says. Not all preservation codes want a seamless addition; some, like San Antonio, want the building to read as a history that includes transitions and adaptations. These changes can then be read by later historians who review the building for adaptations and authenticity.

Signoff Schedule
Every municipality has its own order of approvals to follow to obtain a building permit. They can be mundane — such as proving that taxes are up to date — or they can be a challenge. For Masher, the HDC approval was just one of many signoffs required for his permit. He had to have proof that his water, sewer, gas, electric, and tax payments were current, as well as approvals from the Historic District and Conservation Commissions.

In San Antonio, additional approvals may stem from the initial presentation to the Historic and Design Review Commission. “About four cases out of an average of 25 to 30 cases on an agenda will be sent to one of five different HDRC committees (sign, architecture, demolition, Riverwalk, and public art) for further review,” Chandler says. The commission may even require an on-site visit and interview with the applicant before a return appearance at the next meeting.

The Low-Stress Home Renovation

Low-Stress Home Renovation


For eight months, Sue Gladstone’s home in Suburban Boston was a maze of plastic construction sheeting covered in a haze of construction dust. Half of her first floor was off-limits. The stove and the sink were the only things she could access in the kitchen. The refrigerator was in the living room, which was now the only place in the house other than the bedrooms that anyone could go.

Her home improvement project involved expanding the kitchen and family room and adding a master bedroom suite to the first floor, and offices and a laundry room in the basement. It was supposed to take five months. It lasted eight. “It just was very stressful when you think you are going to be done at Thanksgiving, and then you are going to be done at Christmas, and then you are hoping for Valentine’s Day,” says Gladstone.

But despite the delays, the dust, the close quarters and the frustration of having workers underfoot, Gladstone emerged with her sanity intact. And her family, including her husband and her two kids, ages 15 and 11, did not resort to wringing each other’s necks. How did they do it?

“The number one thing is communication,” Gladstone says. “We had someone on the job every day who was our lead person. And every day, he said, ‘Here is what we are going to be doing today’ or ‘Here are the things I need from you. I need these paint colors; I need these specifications, so that I can keep moving.'”

Although the completion of her house was delayed, it did not come as a surprise to the Gladstones because of the good communication with their contractor. It’s the surprises that will stress you out. Here are some other ways to keep your stress level as low as possible as you renovate your home.

Research Contractors
Don’t just hire a contractor because of a television ad or a sign on a front yard. Call references, get bids and visit your local courthouse to see if your contractor of choice has been sued recently. And when you interview, consider your contractor’s personality. After all, you’ll be working closely with him for a while.

Finding a contractor who offers guarantees can also bring peace of mind. “Our company has a guaranteed construction completion date,” says Max Christenbury, senior vice president of Bryant Phillips Associates in Apex, N.C., which specializes in fire- and water-damage related restoration. “If it’s not finished in six months, we pay additional housing expenses.”

Budget Concerns
No matter how old or young your home, there are secrets lurking behind its walls. And once a contractor taps into those secrets, your costs will go up. Mold, radon, water damage, and plumbing or electrical lines that need replacing all are costs you have no choice but to incur if you want to get the project done.

You have to assume that you are going to be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent over budget,” says psychologist Leslie Beth Wish, Ed. D., who has completed two home renovations and two constructions. “If you can come in under 10 percent, you are doing really good.”

Avoid the “you might as well” trap, Dr. Wish says. You’re putting in a new bathroom, so “you might as well” get the whirlpool tub. Ask yourself: Is this something you really need? Will this tub keep you up at night with worry as dollar figures run through your mind? If so, it’s not worth the stress toll.

Low-Stress Renovation - Herringbone


Understand the Construction Business
Contractors are notorious for taking on more than one job at a time. This means you might have a crew in on Monday to put in the floor, but they might not return until the following week to finish the job. And understand that contractors do not have absolute control over the sub-contractors, such as plumbers and electricians.

Also, don’t think that just because on TV they can build an entire house in a week that your project should move with that kind of speed. Renovating an existing home can actually be more complicated than building a new one from the ground up, Christenbury says.

Avoid Becoming Overwhelmed
The signs of stress can be insidious at first: your foot shaking when you’re on the phone with your contractor or your heart racing when staring at a wall full of tile samples, says Anutza Bellissimo, executive director of the Stress and Anger Management Institute in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Unless this stress is addressed, you will react negatively, such as yelling at your contractor or your spouse, seeking comfort in a pint of ice cream or developing sleep-stopping heartburn.

Making lists of what you need to do and the questions you have for your contractor can help ease that overwhelming feeling, Bellissimo says. Being honest with the people involved in your project is also helpful, she adds. Tell your contractor what you need. Tell him what you’re unhappy with. Do it unemotionally, without yelling, and you’re much more likely to get the resolution you want. “Bullying will only get you short-term results,” Bellissimo says. “It will eventually backfire because there are only so many times you can bully someone before they begin to bully you back.”

Plan for Delays
If your contractor says a project will take three months, plan for it to take six, Dr. Wish says. If you are renting a place while your house is being worked on, get a month-to-month lease that won’t have you forced out the door before your home is ready.

Moving out of the home while it’s being renovated can also speed the process. This is especially true if by being there, you are limiting your contractor’s access to the home. “A family might not want repairs done on Fridays, or they only let us work after 10 a.m. when the kids have left for school,” Christenbury says, adding that those limitations can delay a project.

Another way to avoid the stress of delays is to make sure you are not a cause of the problem. Paint colors, plumbing fixtures and cabinet styles are all decisions you should make before the construction even starts. That way, supplies can be ordered in advance, reducing the chance that shipping and inventory problems will delay your project.

Any home improvement project, no matter the scale, is going to come with its own surprises and challenges. But preparing yourself mentally and being organized from the get-go can ensure that you end the process more in love with your home than when you started.

Do Your Own Home Inspection

A fresh perspective is important to reveal good features and bad on your property.

Home Inspection


To get a fresh vantage on the dwelling you see every day, try examining your house with binoculars. Look at the place from both near and far. With the binoculars shaping your view, you may see details and compositions that surprise you. It’s rather like seeing snapshots of people you know well — sometimes they just don’t look like themselves, largely because you detect features you hadn’t noticed before.

Next, focus on the front door. Often the main entrance is the single best exterior clue to the floor plan of a building. If it’s located at the center of the house, that may indicate a balanced arrangement of rooms on either side of a central hall. Is there a discernable pattern of windows? Do the details on each window frame match the others? How about the sash: Does each have the same number of lights (panes of glass)? One or several that are trimmed differently, contain different-size sashes, or are out of alignment with the others may indicate an addition or remodeling. Is the trim at the corners and the roof line consistent from one portion of the house to another?

Now think about the house in two dimensions. In a traditional home, you should see a series of perpendicular lines on each plane. Is the roof line straight or does it dip in the middle? Wavy or undulating lines of siding or a wall surface that bulges may indicate a structural problem. If it is apparent to your eye that supposedly horizontal surfaces are not level and vertical ones are not plumb, you and probably a contractor should find out why. In an eighteenth-century Colonial, elements that are out-of-square may be regarded as part of its character and the house perfectly sound. In newer construction, however, such signs may represent something to worry about.

While you are standing at a distance, can you detect any curling or missing shingles or other signs of roof deterioration? How about the chimney: Does it stand straight and tall, or are the mortar joints deteriorated so that it’s angling to one side?

Moving closer to the house, continue your examination on the south or southwestern side. These exposures are subject to more weathering, as the warming and drying of the sun exaggerates the effects of wind and rain.

What is the external wall covering? Wood is the most common siding in North America, with roughly 90 percent of houses clad in wood. Is it clapboard, shingle, board-and-batten (consisting of wide vertical boards, with the joints covered with narrower boards)? How soon will a paint job or more serious scraping, patching, and painting be necessary? If the walls are of brick or stone, is the surface in good condition? What about the mortar joints — do you need to repoint (replace the deteriorated mortar joints)? With stucco houses, look for cracks and bulges. If the siding material is aluminum or vinyl, check for dents, missing pieces, and discoloration. In an older home, these artificial sidings may have been added on top of the original clapboards or shingles, which may be intact beneath and well worth restoring. Later in the process, you may want a contractor to help you investigate this option. If so, make a note on your wish list.

Look closely at the windows. Is there peeling paint? Where the vertical frame members abut the sill, are there signs of decay like softened and discolored wood, mold, and blistering paint? Is the putty missing or cracked where the panes of glass join the frame and muntins (the elements between the panes in a divided-light sash)?

Look at the foundation. Is it of uniform material and finish? Do the walls appear plumb, solid, and the mortar joints sound? How close are wooden elements to the ground? If any siding or other wood is closer than six inches to the soil, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. The excess soil should be excavated to prevent decay.

Walk around the perimeter of the house and look carefully for problem areas. If there is a porch, examine it with particular care. Porches are exposed to the elements, so posts, floorboards, and railings are subject to decay. Have you noticed soft spots on the porch floor? How about railings that tend to give a little? Look with care at the joining of the house and the porch. If there is decay, that may indicate that water has been moving from the porch into the structure of the house.

Before proceeding inside, try to think about the exterior of the house as a unified whole. What do you like (or dislike) about it? If your house consists of several sections that were constructed at different times, do they work together nicely — or maybe the last addition seems somehow wrong and you’d like to devise a way to make it look more of-a-piece with the rest of the house. Perhaps you think the front of the home looks dull: Many a plain ranch in recent years has been given a more stately appearance with the addition of an imposing entranceway. Perhaps there’s a design detail that you especially like — a decorative window, a band of molding, a porch post, an unusual building material like glass block, or some other element that you might like to revisit in your proposed renovation.

Rethinking Space Needs as Families Grow

Checklists are guides for remodeling, adding on, or moving


As a family matures, space needs change. Noise levels alter. A need for privacy arises. Entertainment choices diverge. Family gathering spots are still important, but so are places of refuge.

Facing Facts
Deciding how to accommodate the teen years becomes a matter of sorting through facts, figures, and emotions. An older child who had bunked with a younger brother or sister may now want a separate bedroom. Another bathroom may become important. Study space is now vital as is computer access. A place to hang out with friends may not be necessary but would be nice.

Repurposing space offers a good chance for parents and teens to team up and get to know one another better. Together, start by compiling a list of how older children impact family activities. Next, develop an inventory, room by room, of spaces that no longer serve their purposes. The great room, living room, basement, attic, or garage may be ripe for redefinition.

Teen Space
Teens need their space. As young adults, they are learning to become separate, to interact with their own friends and activities, and to select their own styles. Still, with concerns over the Internet and media, many parents understand the need to keep independent space accessible and open. When designing a room for teens, start by working together to create a checklist of desired activities. Music, video, television, studying, games, gathering space, or crafts may be on the list. Based on the activities list and your available space, decide whether a new, separate teen living room can be created.

Designers often select lofts, attics, basements, or spare bedrooms for these activity areas. Accessibility, a bathroom, and perhaps snack space should be included. Consider what media will be involved and whether wiring should be updated to accommodate data, phone lines, or multi-media. Parents may also choose to buffer the rest of the house by soundproofing the new space. Replacing hollow doors with solid doors, insulating the walls, providing acoustic ceiling panels, and decorating with sound-absorbing fabrics, carpets, and furniture will help to reduce noise spillover.

Family Space
As the family matures, the activities they share change. While young children enjoy game, puzzle, and reading space adjacent to family centers, older children and adults often enjoy a getaway room where they can play games, rough house, listen to music, or watch movies. Family rooms are often multi-media rooms with music, video, and movie capability. Video gaming is also a popular activity that is shared between all ages.

Designers frequently select basements for family game rooms because they feature ready-made space that is often open and easily adapted to various uses. Basements offer the opportunity to rewire readily, insulate between the floor joists, apply acoustic ceiling tile, and construct insulated walls, so that this space can be as rambunctious and fun-filled as you like without disturbing the people upstairs. Attention to safe secondary exits, approved wiring, and moisture control are recommended when remodeling basements.

When planning family space, focus on the activities you share. Have each family member compile a wish list of family activities then rank them according to priority. Have a group discussion to see which activities are at the top of the list, then look for the space to accommodate those activities. For some families it may be garage workshop or craft space, for others it is music and reading areas, for many it is game and media centers. Make sure you design your space to make family time work for you.

Adding Space
If the space just isn’t there, adding square footage may be expensive but necessary. An in-law apartment for teens, with a bathroom, bedroom, and sitting area, may answer immediate demands and meet future needs for space to accommodate an elderly parent.

Talk with two or three construction firms, set up a visit, and provide a copy of the ideas detailed from walkthroughs. Ballpark estimates should be fairly well aligned. If not, check to see where the discrepancies lie — you may actually discover a structural obstacle or flaw that was overlooked by other builders. Finally, be sure to check with local building and zoning officials to make sure that adding on is possible.

Deciding to Move
If remodeling and additions are out of the picture, another home might be the answer. Keep in mind that the teen years do not last long. Purchases should be made with future space needs in mind.

Moving or remodeling also costs money. Homeowners should not add on more than 10-15 percent over the average home value in their neighborhood. Moving will incur expenses for the new home, taxes, and moving, plus closing costs and an added commission for the realtor. So develop a financial worksheet and weigh the options before you decide.

A popular option for families with teens is a walkout ranch, according to Pat V. Combs, past president of the National Association of Realtors. Older children get the walkout lower level for their space, and when they move out the parents have their main home on one floor and space for visitors on the lower level.