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.
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.
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-which specializes in ADUs, suggests checking with your local zoning office or a local architect or builder to see what’s doable.
“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. “Everybody needs their private space.”
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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!