Under One Roof: The Return of Multigenerational Homes

Enjoy your personal space? The space is about to get smaller -- and more personal.
By: Geoff Williams
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If you’re ever broke, without a place to live and thus forced to move your family back in your old bedroom at your parents’ house -- you could look at that scenario as something bad.

Or you could focus on the fact that there’s something kind of comforting about the 21st century looking more and more like the 19th. That was a time, after all, when multiple generations living under one roof was nothing surprising, and there were benefits of having children growing up under the wing of parents, grandparents and even a rogue uncle or aunt.

Fortunately, as times change, and the new looks like the days of old, houses appear set to evolve right along with them. If you’re wondering if that add-on bedroom will really someday help sell your home any faster, and if you’re questioning if there really is a house that you can buy with enough space to accommodate your spouse’s parents, the answer is increasingly -- yes.

Get used to it

In 1895, The Philadelphia Record ran a story about multigeneration homes. It wasn’t a story that different generations were living together in their city, but five generations warranted a brief item. But even that, while rare, wasn’t all that shocking. Numerous cities back then were running stories about five generations living in one household, generally with the patriarch or matriarch having reached their centennial birthday.

That’s the direction we’re heading in again, although we were headed there before the Great Recession roared to life. A recent AARP Bulletin study shows that the number of multigenerational households climbed from 5 million in 2000 to 6.2 million in 2008, and with unemployment going up, it’s believed that that number is significantly higher today. And while this is stretching the point a bit, even President Barack Obama’s mother-in-law lives with the family.

Jeff Otteau’s insight echoes the scant statistical information out there. His East Brunswick, New Jersey-based consultation firm, the Otteau Valuation Group, services residential and commercial developers, among other groups, with their company motto being “bringing clarity to real estate.”

Otteau says that in the coming years first-time homeowners will be older as a group, since the tightening of credit will force people to save up more and longer for their house, which aren’t likely to resemble the often-criticized McMansions, the nickname that cropped up in the 1990s to describe the oversized, opulent homes that have dotted the suburban landscape throughout the last couple decades.

That means houses are going to get smaller even as they get more crowded.

But on the cheerier side, that’s better for the environment, and living spaces will be more functional with less wasted space. “People are going to be buying houses that they can afford,” says Otteau.

Buying houses we can afford: an interesting concept and Misty Weaver is a part of that. Weaver is a partner at 5 Elements Design, which is based in San Diego and specializes in designing small (500 to 1,500 square feet) residential custom homes, and she also has noticed that multigenerational houses are staging a comeback.

Weaver says that they used to get requests for multigenerational home blueprints every couple of months, but now she and her partner, Sarah Ascolese, are fielding these calls every couple weeks.

“The majority have definitely been grandparents-parents-kids,” says Weaver, “but occasionally we’ll get a sister or brother in the mix, or it’s unclear what the relationship is.” She says that what they’ve been asked to do run the gamut from basement makeovers for relatives to sleep in to adding little cottages alongside the house.

Pulling out the crystal ball

It’s impossible to know exactly what future houses will look like in five years (most of them, of course, will look exactly like they do now, only five years older), but we’ll give it a whirl, anyway.

  • Expect more bedrooms. Only you may not see them from the outside. In fact, the builders of McMansions may have the last laugh. McMansions are perfect for adjusting to the trend of multigenerational families living in one household. For instance, Otteau predicts that it will become increasingly common “to see those large two-story entrance foyers done away with, as people have another floor installed above, to get another bedroom in the house.”
  • Fewer walk-in closets. “The goal,” says Otteau, “will be to pack in more living space without increasing the price of housing.”
  • Amenities aimed at the multigenerational household. When the economy recovers, if the multigenerational home concept stays intact, as Otteau thinks it will, houses may borrow ideas from places like Telfair, a master-planned community in Houston. Long before the recession hit, these homes were set up for multiple generations. Damon Thomas, who handles the PR for Telfair, says that the houses feature in-law suites as well as casitas, which are small, detached but self-contained houses and apartments. Some houses, says Thomas, even contain up to seven bedrooms.
  • Forget the living room -- or the family room? Otteau believes more homeowners are going to ditch one for the other -- and use the remaining space as an extra bedroom or two. Developers, he says, are already trending toward just building one living room or family room and not both.

Inside your house, now

A rise in add-ons and mother-in-law apartments is expected, but so far, with the recession, we’re talking more predictions than progress. David Lupberger is a veteran home builder and spokesman for ServiceMagic.com, a Web site that hooks up homeowners with home improvement professionals; and he says that their network of 60,000 contractors has seen a decline in larger projects like bedroom add-ons but an increase in smaller repairs, like a 76 percent jump in awning installations.

Lupberger believes that homeowners are tackling minor repairs to improve their home because “they know they’re going to be here awhile,” but putting off the larger expenditures because, well, the economy isn’t what it used to be.

“When we survey people, they say that they’re going to do these larger projects, like extra bedrooms for their in-laws,” says Lupberger. “They’re just not sure when. People are thinking, planning, developing -- and sitting tight.”

Thinking, planning and developing isn’t a bad idea. It’s not something you want to rush into. Lupberger saw that for himself when he started plotting the construction of a mother-in-law apartment for his brother. There were zoning issues.

The community planners were worried about mother-in-law cottages cropping up everywhere and later being rented out to strangers, all of which would bring property values down and change the character of the neighborhood, they feared. They finally agreed to the add-on when Lupberger’s brother signed a waiver promising that only a blood relative would live in the add-on home.

Weaver certainly espouses the virtues of planning ahead when designing a house for yourself, your spouse, your kids, the grandparents or the unemployed uncle. “A lot of people who are bringing their parents into their home forget what they didn’t like about living with them before they moved out,” says Weaver. “So it’s important to think about how you live your life and how it will be affected by another person living with the family.”

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