From the April/May 2012 Issue:

Not Home Alone

    Writer: Robin Amster |

How to adapt your house when parents or adult children move in

Extended families living under one roof generally have not been a part of American culture. But that’s changing because of the bad economy coupled with longer lives. Elderly parents may have no option beyond moving in with their children. And their children’s children—cash-strapped and jobless—are increasingly moving back in with their parents.

As designer Sheila Rich puts it, “People are outliving their money, while the kids are graduating college with huge debts.”

Those moving in with Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner, though, can include a host of others beyond senior parents and adult children, designer Diane Boyer notes. The new residents might be other economically challenged relatives, working couples’ live-in housekeeping or child-care staff, and children who regularly visit a divorced parent. “There’s just a lot of movement going on,” Boyer says.

It all adds up to some big challenges. How do you convert your existing space to additional living quarters? What issues are involved in building an addition? How do you address new residents’ special needs? How can you make everyone as comfortable as possible?

For their ideas, Design NJ asked Rich, an allied member of the American Society of Interior Designers, professional member of the International Interior Design Association and owner of Sheila Rich Interiors in Monmouth Beach; Boyer, a professional member of ASID and owner of Diane Boyer Interiors in Verona; Jeffrey Brooks, allied member of ASID; and Susan Rochelle, a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of Susan M. Rochelle, AIA, Architect in Milford.

Converting a first-floor room for parents is ideal. Negotiating stairs is—or is likely to be—a concern for senior parents moving in with the family. First-floor space also provides greater accessibility to the kitchen. A former maid’s room and bathroom is an obvious fit for a new bedroom suite, but designers say other good candidates include rooms that get relatively little use, such as a dining room or library.

A second-floor guest room or attic works well for adult children. Stairs and proximity to the kitchen are non-issues for most young adults. Designers say second-floor space and attics offer kids and their parents a greater degree of separation that both will appreciate.

Basements or garages are a natural for creating apartment-style living. Finished basements may require minimal retrofitting to accommodate new residents, designers say. These basements often include a bathroom, though you may have to convert it from a powder room to a full bath. Anytime you refinish a basement, consider adding a full bathroom—it will increase your home’s value even if you don’t need it for extended family. Another option is to convert an attached or detached garage. These are usually built on a slab so the new living area’s floor must be insulated, Rochelle says. Boyer notes that a detached garage can be integrated with the home by adding a breezeway between the two. If the budget allows, homeowners can consider adding a kitchen or kitchenette to a basement or garage.

Consider everyone’s privacy. “It seems like a given, but when someone moves into someone else’s home, privacy is not a given. It’s a luxury,” Rich says. This is less of an issue with a converted basement or garage, but when those conversions are not an option, designers advise adapting rooms that are farthest from the homeowners’ bedroom. And for an addition, include a sitting room or other buffer zone that will be the first space you enter from the house. That maximizes privacy for everyone, Rochelle says.

Get exactly what you need by constructing an addition. If financially possible, a purpose-built addition with a sitting room, bedroom, full bathroom and possibly a kitchen or kitchenette may be the best solution, our experts say. “If you’re lucky and the addition is planned—and located—well, it might be serviced by an existing kitchen and bath,” Brooks notes. Construction of any addition, however, raises issues involving zoning restrictions and building requirements. The particulars depend on your town and your location within the town, Rochelle says. An “apartment” with a full kitchen, for instance, might raise questions about creating a two-family home in an area zoned for one-family homes, she notes.

Planning an addition? Get professional help. Negotiating zoning and building requirements isn’t the only area homeowners may have to address. Key to the process is coming up with the right design from the start. “The minute you decide you’re going to add on to your home, you should be talking with an architect, a builder and a designer,” Brooks says. “Create a team at the start so you don’t wind up stumbling later over things you didn’t think of.”

Design an aesthetically pleasing addition. “An architect should design additions that look as though they were always meant to be there,” Rochelle says. “They shouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.” This includes mimicking the home’s window pattern, matching the addition’s roof to the home’s and creating the right proportion in relation to the home. Lining up three rooms end to end off the side or back of the home is not what you want to do, she says.

Incorporate age-appropriate elements. Features that comply with ADA (Americans with Disability Act) accessibility guidelines make life easier for the elderly and others whether you’re dealing with an addition, a converted basement or garage, or space within the home. Boyer has incorporated several such features in her projects, including elevators, bathroom grab bars and sinks you can pull a wheelchair up to, handrails for long hallways, and outside ramps. These can serve other residents—and purposes—as well, she says. “Many features with ADA compliance also work in other ways. Ramps, for example, are convenient for wheeling baby strollers or bringing groceries up to the house.”

Bathrooms and kitchens are smart investments. Full bathrooms and kitchens are desirable additions that boost real estate values, the experts say. Consider converting a closet or powder room into a full bathroom. “I’d say the best investments are bathrooms first and kitchens second,” Rich says. “The more bathrooms the more value added.”

New residents’ furniture can be integrated. Elderly parents will likely have furniture they want to bring with them. It may take some effort but you can find room for some, if not all, of these pieces, the designers say. Accommodating a different style, if it’s at odds with yours, can be tricky though. “How do I make that clunky 12-drawer dresser fit?” Brooks asks. “It can be refinished or painted. And if I lean on a smart use of color, it can bring things together style-wise.” Brooks suggests borrowing from the home’s color palette and incorporating it in the new living area. “A couple of gallons of paint are a small investment that can make a huge difference,” he says.

Robin Amster, a Madison-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Design NJ.