For an aging parent, an ‘in-law suite’ can provide a home within a home

August 14

Two years ago, Diane Harris moved out of her longtime home and moved in with her daughter, Rachael, and Rachael’s spouse, Wendy Harris. Now Rachael and Wendy have created a home of Diane’s own under their roof in Springfield.

Because health issues made it unsafe for Diane, now 78, to live alone, Rachael and Wendy moved Diane into their guest room in 2012. But the split-level house had steps between rooms that were risky for Diane to negotiate, and the guest room was “tight quarters” for Diane, Wendy says.

The Harrises hired Moss Building and Design of Chantilly to build a 1,000-square-foot addition that incorporates a new kitchen and a great room as well as an “in-law suite” where Diane enjoys the comfort, privacy and personal touches of her old home, all without stairs.

The suite features a spacious bedroom-living area and an attractive bathroom equipped for safety and ease of use. The bathroom has a large, low-curb shower with ramp entry, a hand-held shower head, a built-in bench and stylish grab bars. Although it is close to the kitchen and great room, the suite has a door that provides “nice privacy,” Diane says. Doorways are wide for accessibility.

Furniture and collectibles from Diane’s old house bring a sense of home and the familiar to her new space. There are bedroom and other furnishings, glassware, paintings and family photographs, decorative hats that belonged to her mother and a tall, antique corner cabinet positioned under a 10-foot-high ceiling section specially designed for it.

Diane loves ice cream, and now she can easily visit the kitchen for late-night ice cream snacks. The new kitchen includes a chair-height counter near the refrigerator and ice cream parlor chairs brought from her house. The suite and other new rooms are “working really well,” she said.

Demand for in-law suites is growing, says Rodney Harrell, an AARP senior policy adviser and housing expert. With baby boomers aging, the U.S. population of people 65 or older is expected to burgeon from 39.6 million in 2009 to about 72.1 million in 2030, according to federal Administration on Aging data. Thus, more families are looking to provide space in their homes for an elderly relative.


Family dogs M Wood and Rosie hang out in the 1,000-square-foot addition that Rachael and Wendy Harris had built after Rachael’s mother, Diane Harris, came to live with them in Springfield, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Joe and Janie Mack remodeled their house in Annandale recently to create an in-law suite for Janie’s mother, Dunny. She was “happy as a clam” in the suite, Joe says of his mother-in-law, who called it “my castle.” Dunny, who has since died, regretted only that she had not made the move sooner.

Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design + Build in Falls Church, handled the Mack project, adding an accessible first-floor bedroom and a bathroom suite next to a new family room that replaced a carport. All the new rooms are on one level, with flush thresholds and wide doorways between them. The sitting area of the suite is big enough for a couch and chair. It adjoins a porch, so that it has plenty of natural light and views of the yard where the Macks’ four children play.

An interior door to the suite assured that Dunny had privacy and quiet, but the suite’s location made it easy for her to share time with the children. They would stop by to introduce friends to her or bring in a snack to watch TV with her. “Having her here had a very positive impact on our family,” Joe says. It took the children “out of their self-focused world to be there for her,” Janie says.

Thinking ahead, the Macks asked Winn to equip the suite with two walk-in closets. In the bathroom, they had a tub installed as well as a large shower, and the vanity has drawers on both sides of the sink. With these features, “the suite will be a perfect master bedroom for us later,” Joe says. “We’re thrilled with it.”


Diane’s “in-law suite” is steps away from the open-plan living room, dining room and kitchen, far right, that are part of the same addition. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An added incentive for investing in an in-law suite is the high cost of care-giving facilities and services. Moving Mom or Dad into the family home may be a more affordable option, says the AARP’s Harrell.

Winn, who has seen an increase in extended-family dwellings in Arlington, agrees that the arrangement has financial advantages. “The cost of care for a parent has gotten so high that doing something at home makes more sense,” he says.

True in-law suites — that is, living space integrated into a house to accommodate an older or disabled relative — are not the same as “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), which function as separate dwelling units and often are intended for rental. ADUs are often placed in a walk-out basement or over a garage, walled off from the rest of the house and equipped with a full kitchen and separate entrances. They face significant zoning restrictions and conditions, and they generally require special permits. In some jurisdictions, “it’s just about impossible” to get permission to build such dwellings, Winn says.


Diane Harris's new bedroom is steps away from the ice cream bar. Many items that Diane recognizes from her youth were incorporated into the addition. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Not so for in-law suites in the D.C. area. “We want to work with folks” looking to house a family member, says Fairfax County Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson. “We’re trying to accommodate people’s needs,” whether that means providing an elevator shaft, supplementary parking or a bump-out addition to make room for a bathroom accessible to people with mobility issues.

In jurisdictions throughout the Washington area, the guidelines for in-law suites are similar. Basically, an in-law suite can have a bedroom, a sitting area, a bathroom and one or two simple appliances, but not a stove or a full kitchen.

“When you close off the area and add a kitchen and bath, you need a special permit,” Johnson says. (For details about what is allowed where you live, check with the local government’s planning and zoning department.)

Like Winn, of Winn Design, Jason Hampel, co-owner of Moss Building and Design, says his company is seeing more demand for in-law suites. So far this year, the company has done about 10 substantial in-law-suite projects, double the company’s 2012 number.

“We do a lot of multi-use spaces” that address such issues as aging in place and preparing for parents to move into the house in the future, Hampel says. He advises clients who are planning in-law suites to “design with the long term in mind” — and with an eye to all the possible uses: such as housing a relative, serving other family needs and, ultimately, adding sales appeal to the house when it goes on the market.

Wendy A. Jordan is a freelance writer.

Gettting the job done right

Anticipate design and construction of an in-law suite will take several months to a year. To expedite the permit process, experts advise homeowners comply fully with all relevant building codes and zoning ordinances and provide the required plans and paperwork. Contractors can help navigate this process. Follow all the rules and you could get a permit for your in-law suite in as little time as a day, says Debby McMahon, chief of the Fairfax County Permit Application Center. Omissions or errors in the application can make review and approval take considerably longer.

Jason Hampel, co-owner of Moss Building and Design, and Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design + Build, offer several planning tips for in-law suites:

●The suite should be comfortable and private to foster a feeling of independence, Hampel says.

•At the same time, it should be close and connected to the family living area.

•Place the suite on the main floor so that it has access to shared living spaces without the barrier of stairs.

•Incorporate wide hallways and doorways (at least 36 inches) in the suite and adjoining living spaces to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and people walking side by side.

•Integrate features that are attractive but safe and accessible, such as smooth flooring, lever handles for doors and faucets, non-skid bathroom flooring, a large curbless shower, a shower bench, a hand-held shower head, a chair-height toilet and sturdy, good-looking grab bars.

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