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Making room for multiple generations

-13familyB credi Leif Parsons

Janice McGovern and her husband, Rick, a Franklin couple in their 50s, had long considered buying a two-family or a place with an in-law suite for her parents, but Mom and Dad refused to leave their Waltham house. Then the day came, says Janice McGovern, when “they had no choice.”

“About a year ago, Dad had a stroke,” she says of her 91-year-old father. “After his second hospital stay, they came to live with us.” But McGovern, a bookkeeper, wasn’t prepared; two of her grown children were still living with her and Rick, a welder, in their 1,800-square-foot Colonial, and her office — “my own little sanctuary” — was taking up the fourth bedroom. There was space to put an addition on the house, but no money to build it. “My parents would have had to sell their house to fund the work,” McGovern says, “and they didn’t want to.”


Caring for her parents would have been a challenge in any situation, she adds, but having an already full house didn’t help matters.

In part because of the recession, job losses, and foreclosures, the number of US households containing three or more generations in the United States is surging back after decades of decline since World War II. In 2000, there were 3.9 million multigenerational households, according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, that figure shot up to 5.1 million, roughly a 30 percent increase.

“The five D’s that drive parents to move in with adult children,” says Sharon McNamara, broker-owner of Boston Connect Real Estate in Pembroke, “are disability, divided time (when the parent is a snowbird . . .), divorce, death [of a spouse], and day care, or parents helping their recently divorced daughter take care of her kids so she can work full time.”

There are two ways to deal with this: adapt in your current home or find a new one.


Reconfigure your space

If you have the money, some homes are relatively easy to reconfigure for another person or two, but be sure to check restrictions and building codes before making any changes. The best and most obvious way to renovate, says Kathy Mihelis-Dunne, an agent with Real Living Realty Group in Franklin, often is to convert a finished or partially finished basement.

Generally speaking, she says, “it’s perfectly legal to do that. As with any new construction, you’d need permits and inspections, but as far as the living arrangement, it’s considered family, not a rental property.”

If a full-fledged apartment isn’t in your budget or won’t work in your space, you may be able to add a bathroom, build a wall to make a bedroom, and install a sink with a small fridge and microwave so your parents have a place to make themselves a snack. It may also be possible, if your parents are younger and still very mobile, to adapt a walk-up attic, a room over the garage, or even an outbuilding, if it’s worth the effort and expense given the number of years you think it will be used.

“When people do in-law style renovations on their homes,” says McNamara, “they should always keep in mind resale value. Make sure whatever you’re building is going to work for many kinds of families, not just your own.”

If an addition or a large-scale renovation simply isn’t feasible, says Mihelis-Dunne, you may be able to close off part of the main floor, perhaps by adding French doors with privacy curtains.


“I initially took the table out of the dining room and put my father’s hospital bed in,” McGovern says. “We only have a half-bath downstairs, so dad had to take sponge baths.” Her mother slept on the couch for a while, until McGovern cleared out her second-floor office. Eventually her father went into a nursing home, but even just one extra person makes the house “more chaotic, absolutely,” McGovern says.

Finding somewhere for everyone to sleep can be a hassle. But, as Mihelis-Dunne points out, “the largest expense and complication is the bathroom. Depending on your parent’s mobility, you may need to make changes for a wheelchair or you might just add a shower — or maybe that’s not even a possibility.”

Taking sponge baths using a commode is the worst-case scenario; a better solution, if it’s practical, is to install a stair lift to the second floor. Rebuilding Together Boston does free home modifications for the city’s low-income residents. Some work may include adding stair rails, wheelchair ramps, and even a shower to a half-bath.

As for the rest of the family, Mihelis-Dunne adds, “it’s just a matter of adjusting to the new space.”

Find a new place

A recent National Association of Realtors survey indicated that 14 percent of home purchases made in a 12-month period ended in June 2013 were for multigenerational households.


If you have the luxury of planning ahead or buying a new home when your circumstances change, there are many possibilities. Again, depending on your parents’ level of independence, a two-family, a single-family with an in-law suite, or a condo with two master suites — if you can find one — could all work.

Of the two-family option, Michael Pallares, a Coldwell Banker agent in Jamaica Plain, says: “If your parents say that in five years they’re going to sell and move in with you, look for a multifamily and use those first few years to rent. With a multi, you still have your independence, and your parents can have their own lives, too.”

Families that can afford it might even choose to buy two houses near each other. McNamara’s own father is in a townhouse development close to her home, so she can visit often to help him with his medications and finances. “He helps me, too,” she says. “If I’m traveling, I can always call my dad. It makes him feel good to know he’s still valued.”

Ranches, with all the rooms on one floor, and raised ranches, with separate entries for the main and lower levels, are also coming back into style for just this reason, Pallares says, while a good option for downsizing city dwellers might be a large condo in a building with an elevator and a doorman. “If mom or dad’s alone in the daytime while you’re at work, it’s nice to have someone to call on,” he points out.


Location is also key, he says. He recalled a client in her late 60s who was considering whether to move from Kentucky to Charlestown to be closer to her son. “She didn’t want to be too far from activities,” he says, “or feel isolated. She said, ‘I’ll be walking much more than driving as I get older and want to be able to walk to the grocery store.’ It was eye-opening to me. She felt that activity nearby made her not feel alone. She would love to look out the window and see stuff going on and not be stuck in the middle of suburbia, where she’d have to drive six blocks to get to the closest whatever.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a regular Globe contributor. Send e-mail to Address@globe.com.