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Room for one — or two — or three more

Sharing living space while maintaining privacy can connect generations

Alecia Walters, left, and Ciaran O’Sullivan, right, added a multigenerational suite with a private entrance to the Midtown Series townhouse they purchased in April. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story misstated Pew Research Center’s definition of a multigenerational family. It is a household with two or more adult generations, not a household with three or more generations.

When Derek and Lakeisha Steele started looking for a new home two years ago, their top priority was to find a place with room for Derek’s mother, now 70.

“It’s very important to us to support our family,” says Lakeisha. “My mother-in-law was living in a senior apartment and we wanted to have her live with us. We may take my mother in to live with us someday in the future, too.”

The Steeles, both 38-year-old federal government employees, were living in Arlington, Va., but open to moving to Maryland if they could find the right property. They purchased a townhouse built by Mid-Atlantic Builders at Westphalia Town Center in Upper Marlboro, Md.

“We looked at resale houses and other new construction, but it was hard to find the layout we wanted so my mother could have her own space,” says Derek. “Everything that worked was out of our budget or too far away until we found the Urban Series townhouses.”

The Steeles purchased their townhouse for $457,000 in April 2018 under a pre-sale program — the Urban Series has since sold out — and spent about $6,500 of that amount on the optional ground-floor multigenerational suite. The suite includes a large bedroom with a sitting area, a walk-in closet and a full bathroom. A media room is adjacent to the suite, which Lakeisha says her mother-in-law uses to watch movies or read.

“We have a big open floor plan on the main level with a wide center island, so it’s easy for us all to share the kitchen,” says Derek. “We have three bedrooms on the upper level, one of which is my office. Now that we’re both working at home because of the pandemic, we turned our guest bedroom into another office.”

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The ability to live separately in different parts of the house and then to congregate in a kitchen or living area can make multigenerational living more pleasant for every family member.

New homes for multigenerational families

Alecia Walters and Ciaran O’Sullivan, a married couple, added a multigenerational suite with a private entrance to the Midtown Series townhouse they purchased at Westphalia Town Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., in April. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

For families separated during stay-at-home guidelines mandated by the coronavirus pandemic, sharing a home may come under new consideration for the future.

“Caregiving is a big factor in multigenerational households, including adults caring for their older parents and grandparents caring for their grandkids,” says Amy Goyer, a family and caregiving expert with AARP who lives in a multigenerational household. “Boomerang kids living with their parents after college is also common and there are expectations among many cultures that extended family members live together.”

Approximately 20 percent of Americans, around 64 million people, live in a household with two or more adult generations, according to a 2018 study by Pew Research Center. While many people associate multigenerational living with adults caring for their aging parents or in-laws, Pew’s study found that 33 percent of people aged 25 to 29 are living in multigenerational households. That compares with just 24 percent of people aged 55 to 65 and 21 percent of people age 65 and older living with multiple generations.

“Multigenerational living is often an economic choice because families can share housing costs and everyday living expenses,” says Goyer. “No matter why you’re making this choice, you still need to evaluate how this will impact your relationships.”

John Lavery, vice president of sales and marketing for Mid-Atlantic Builders, says his sales team has seen increasing interest in multigenerational suites for several years for both single-family houses and townhouses.

“We offered a multigen suite on our 24-foot-wide Urban Series townhouses at Westphalia and 75 percent of buyers chose that option,” says Lavery. “Our 32-foot-wide Midtown Series townhouses include a three-car garage and a couple of options for multigen suites.”

So far, 60 percent of buyers of the 2,890-square-foot Midtown Series, priced from the $470,000s, have chosen a multigenerational option. Various configurations, which cost $3,795 to $8,995, include one large bedroom, a bedroom and media room or two bedrooms. Each includes a full bathroom. Depending on the option, the townhouse has a two- or three-car garage. Buyers can also add a kitchenette with a refrigerator to the multigenerational suite.

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“Buyers can even add an entrance to the multigen suite through the garage for another private entrance,” says Lavery. “The suites with that private entrance can be locked off from the main house if someone wanted to use it as a rental unit or an Airbnb space.”

Alecia Walters and Ciaran O’Sullivan, a married couple, added a multigenerational suite with a private entrance to the Midtown Series townhouse they purchased in April.

“My niece will move in with us later this summer as soon as she graduates from college,” says Walters. “This way she has her own entrance to her suite and a garage for her car, while we still have our two-car garage.”

Shania Thompson, Walters’s niece, is finishing her degree in criminal justice at Florida International University and hopes to work for the federal government when she moves to Maryland.

“My aunt and uncle have always been supportive of me and I love visiting them,” she says. “Moving in with them is a perfect opportunity for me to be with them more, plus I will be in the heart of federal government in the D.C. area.”

Thompson says she hopes to work for the Department of Homeland Security.

Walters and O’Sullivan also plan to use the suite for extended family visits, when their niece will move to an upper-level guest bedroom.

“I’m Jamaican and grew up with lots of extended family, and Ciaran is from Ireland, so we want a place for his family to come for long visits,” says Walters. “We’re looking forward to having our niece here and giving her a leg up and a place to live rent-free.”

The couple also wanted the multigenerational suite for their parents to have a place if they need help someday.

“We don’t want to put anyone in a nursing home,” says Walters.

Having a bathroom as well as a bedroom and some living space as part of the multigenerational suite is important so family members can feel independent, says O’Sullivan.

“We want them to be able to choose to interact or not whenever they want,” he says.

While the Steeles and Walters and O’Sullivan purchased their homes without sharing expenses with family members, Lavery says some buyers of multigenerational homes qualify for their mortgage with the help of several sources of income.

“The multigenerational suite is valuable flexible space that some buyers use as a home office or private room that can be converted to a bedroom whenever their needs change,” says Lavery.

For extended families that choose to live together, the biggest challenge can be sharing space while maintaining privacy, says Goyer.

“Some people feel they’ve lost their identity when they move in with family members, so a separate in-law suite is desirable,” says Goyer. “That way, each person has their own space as well as their shared space.”

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The kitchen tends to be the biggest source of friction for multigenerational families, she says.

“You need to set expectations for who will use it and when,” Goyer says. “Some people have set family meals every day and others eat wherever and whenever they want. You need to compromise. We all have a lot of rituals and habits around cooking and for some people their sense of identity and control of their environment is related to food.”

The main benefit of intergenerational living, says Goyer, is avoiding social isolation and connecting with your family. She recommends scheduling game nights or movie nights at least once per month and family meals at least once per week when every member of the household comes together.

The other positive aspects include sharing expenses and caregiving.

“Whether you are caring for an adult or sharing childcare duties, you’re improving the quality of care and the quality of life for your family members,” says Goyer. “The social interaction is mutually beneficial.”

Sharing family stories and values can connect the generations.

“If grandparents live in your home, they become an essential character in that child’s life, rather than a supporting character,” says Goyer. “They get to know each other in a different way.”

Tips for multigenerational households

More families may choose to live together in the future, says Goyer, for economic reasons or for caregiving benefits.

“Ideally, whether you have boomerang kids moving back home with their parents or elderly parents moving in with their kids, you want some separate space for everyone,” says Goyer. “If you can have a separate sitting area in addition to their bedroom, that’s best. But even a favorite chair or couch in the corner of shared space that can be designated as theirs helps.”

A small kitchenette and private outdoor space can also make it easier to live together.

“If you’re designing a multigenerational space or looking for a home to move into together, think about a place that’s conducive to intergenerational interaction,” says Goyer. “For example, if the in-law suite is on the other side of the garage, they may feel like they need to stay separate more often. If you can connect the spaces through the living room or kitchen, that can work better.”

Here are some additional tips for making a multigenerational household function well:

● Set expectations and ground rules before moving in together. Setting rules for the people who raised you can be tough, says Derek Steele, but in the long run it makes the living experience better for everyone.

● Work out a budget. If you’re sharing expenses, be explicit about who is paying for what and how the bills are to be split.

● Discuss the implications for estate planning. If you’re bringing elderly parents into your home or moving into their home for caregiving, Goyer says, be sure they have their legal documents in order and have discussed inheritance plans with your siblings. If necessary, she suggests bringing in a neutral third party for a family meeting to avoid future conflict.

● Respect every member of the household. Try to maintain a balance so every family member feels equally at home in the property.

● Establish communications. Talking about frustrations in the living situation or financial issues can be difficult, so Goyer recommends scheduling a monthly review of how things are going where everyone can expect honesty from each other.

● Understand the sense of identity each family member needs. If your mother has spent her life cooking for her family, figure out a way to keep that role if she wants it, suggests Goyer. Similarly, if your parents enjoy gardening, try to find a spot where they can continue their hobby.

● Maintain consistency. Transitions are hard for most people, so Goyer recommends trying to keep as many routines as possible while everyone adjusts to a new household configuration.

● Compromise. People can only change so much, says Goyer, so it’s best to be realistic and try to recognize the opportunities and benefits of living together rather than focus on the frustrations.

“The opportunity to live with family members, to share stories and experiences and take care of each other is priceless,” says Walters. “We want to build memories with our extended families.”