5 Things to Think About Before Adding an In-Law Suite
Multigenerational households are on the rise, but there’s a lot to consider when dreaming up a new space for mom or dad
Gwendolyn Purdom June 16, 2018
Houzz Editorial Staff. Lover of architecture, history, dogs, the Chicago Cubs, crowded bookshelves, and homes with a story. Former editor at Preservation mag and Culturess.com .
Houzz Editorial Staff. Lover of architecture, history, dogs, the Chicago Cubs, crowded... More
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After their parents put a roof over their heads for years, some adult children may consider returning the favor. Creating a distinct space at home for an aging parent to move into — whether it’s a separate backyard unit, a converted basement or bedroom or an added-on suite — is a major undertaking. But with its added peace of mind, potential savings and investment value, flexibility and emotional reward, it’s an undertaking that may be worth the effort for the right family.
Metzler Home Builders
An in-law suite addition in the Philadelphia area
And it’s an undertaking that more and more families may be facing. Between people living longer and having children later in life, assisted-living facilities getting more expensive and diminishing urban housing options, moving mom or dad in with you could make the most sense. A record 64 million Americans (20 percent of the U.S. population) lived in multigenerational households (homes that included two or more adult generations, or grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25) in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
So how can homeowners know whether building out a home-within-a-home for their loved ones is the best decision for them? Here are a few questions experts suggest you ponder before getting to work.
1. Will Your House — and City — Allow It?
The first thing homeowners need to determine is whether they’d be able to add an in-law suite to their property at all. City and municipal zoning ordinances and permitting requirements can get in the way of this type of construction or renovation, particularly if someone wants to build or convert a space that’s not attached to the main house, such as this garage unit.
In the case of a separate structure (also known as an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU), many cities forbid or carefully restrict additional plumbing or gas lines, among other features. David Schultz of Denver-based L&D Construction , which specializes in ADUs, suggests checking with your local zoning office or a local architect or builder to see what’s doable.
Moss Building and Design | Moss Home Services
An in-law suite addition in Fairfax, Virginia
If you plan to convert a garage, basement or other existing area of your home, some of those same limitations might apply. Additionally, thinking through practical issues like which spaces would require the fewest structural adjustments (is there already a half bath nearby that can be expanded to a full?) and what area of your property would lend itself best to an aging resident (an attic may be difficult to get up to, for instance) is essential.
Penn Contractors Inc
Some city zoning rules require these kinds of build-outs to include a door to the outside, making a space like a garage or walk-out basement a logical conversion option. Even if it’s not required, though, creating a separate entrance for your loved one allows them to have proximity to you but maintain an important degree of independence.
“It’s great to have family live with you, but you always need some type of separation because that way you love your family longer,” says Curt Kiriu of Hawaii-based CK Independent Living Builders . “Everybody needs their private space.”
Barbara Grushow Designs INC
2. What Accessibility Concerns Need to Be Addressed?
As a certified aging-in-place specialist, Kiriu speaks with groups and works with clients to ensure homeowners recognize and remedy any potential home hazards or challenges for aging residents, whether it’s for their own safety or the safety of a live-in relative. When adding an in-law suite, he says, homeowners should be thinking through everything from including reinforced walls and grab bars like these in the shower to choosing mood-boosting paint colors. And it’s easiest to make these adjustments early on in the process, even if a parent doesn’t currently have mobility or cognitive problems.
“You want to do it when you first do any type of construction,” he says. “When the walls are open it’s much easier to put in blocking between the studs than it is tearing everything up.”
Following the principles of universal design — which Kiriu says he’s seeing more in his work — will also help incorporate pieces and structures that everyone can use now and in the future.
Carpet Hut by F.V. Woolard
Other aging-friendly design choices include flooring that’s not too slippery and not too textured (Kiriu likes vinyl planks like the kind seen here and closely cropped carpet), minimal clutter, doors and hallways that are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers, lipless showers to prevent tripping and low-maintenance everything.
“As a caregiver, the one thing you have is no time to clean,” he says. “And people want to age and live independently for their life, they don’t want to spend [their time] cleaning and scrubbing and wiping glass.”
Each family is different, and elderly parents dealing with specific health concerns like dementia or Parkinson’s disease will need specific features. Busy patterns can be disorienting for dementia patients, for instance, and an alarm system might be smart for a parent with Alzheimer’s who’s prone to wandering. Again, laying the groundwork early to add those types of amenities later on is a good bet, Kiriu says.
“Nobody thinks about getting old so nobody plans for it,” he says. “And then when something happens, it’s a reaction. They’re not proactive about it.”
Kelly Rogers Interiors
3. What’s Your Long-Term Plan?
Maybe your parents aren’t ready to move in with you but you’d like to keep the option open in the future. Are there other things you could do with the space in the meantime? Are you able to rent it out? Use it as an office or guest room like the one seen here? Could it work as an apartment for your own adult children in a few years? What do you plan to do with it if your parent moves into an assisted-living facility or passes away?
Clawson Architects, LLC
In the case of this attached garage turned in-law living quarters in New York, the homeowners worked with Clawson Architects to plan the space so it could eventually be absorbed back into the main house as a family room or library. In other projects, architect René Clawson says her team has purposefully planned new powder rooms next to closets in case the homeowners ever decide to create a space like this and need the option of a full first-floor bathroom.
Along with planning ahead, Clawson advises clients to consider the flexibility these spaces afford. Even if your parents don’t plan to move in permanently, a separate suite might make sense for frequent longer visits, particularly if they’re visiting from far away.
Lane Williams Architects
4. Does It Make Financial Sense?
Accessory dwelling units in particular present some financial challenges. Because many cities don’t have a lot of them for comparison, it can be harder to get financing for their construction, Schultz says.
“Usually this is the first time [homeowners have] ever built something or developed anything in their life, and it’s a pretty daunting process,” he says.
Depending on the scope of the work you plan to do and where you live, in-law suite additions or renovations typically cost anywhere from $10,000 for a converted space to $300,000 or more for an ADU.
It’s a significant investment, but Kiriu says it can also be a wise one. It may be a more affordable option than long-term nursing care, for one thing. In a 2017 report , insurance provider Genworth Financial found that the national average cost for semi-private and private nursing home rooms has continued to grow in recent years, with private rooms costing nearly $8,000 a month.
Kiriu also notes that when these suites are built using universal design, they may make a home more valuable down the road, as there are so few houses available that are accessible to everyone.
A mother-in-law suite addition and pool house in the Dallas area
5. Is It a Good Fit for Your Family?
Even if you have the ideal house for it, the in-law suite setup isn’t right for everyone. It can be a lot for an adult child to take on emotionally and it could create family strife. The National Council on Aging found that 75 percent of the older adults they surveyed in 2015 said they intend to stay in their own current home for the rest of their lives, so your parent may not even want to make a move or may feel more comfortable elsewhere.
Communication and talking through all the ways this type of change will affect all members of the family is key.
Tell us: How have you made an in-law suite work for your family? Share your stories and photos in the Comments!