February ABODE: Making multigenerational housing work


Sky-high student loans, a sluggish job market, inflated health care costs, and diminished retirement savings —it’s no wonder multiple generations of families are deciding to cut costs by moving under one roof.

More than 51.4 million Americans—roughly one in six—have moved in with family, representing a 10 percent increase in this type of living arrangement since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, according to a new study by Generations United, an intergenerational advocacy group.

Young adults unable to find work and/or pay student loans move back in with their parents. Or retirees whose nest eggs took a hit during the market collapse, or who can’t afford assisted living, move back in with their children. Or both.

According to the report, 66 percent of adults say the current economic climate was a factor in their decision to combine households, while 21 percent reported that it was the only factor.

While there are certainly benefits to this type of living arrangement—help with chores, bills, childcare and/or older adult care, not to mention lively family dinners featuring grandma’s cooking—there are stresses as well, particularly if the dwelling is too small or ill-equipped to accommodate multiple families, leading some to speculate that multigenerational housing could be the next big thing in construction.

While there aren’t plans yet for a multigenerational housing development in the Charlottesville area, Roy Wheeler Realty CEO and managing broker Michael Guthrie says this sort of living arrangement is a growing topic of conversation among clients. “I certainly know people with adult children who’ve moved back in,” he said. “I’ve heard couples say, ‘Mom and dad could be living with us in a few years.’”

A dominant feature of a multigenerational home is what Guthrie calls the “mother-in-law” suite—a detached (such as a cottage out back) or attached (an addition onto the existing home) living area that ideally comes with its own entrance, bathroom and kitchenette, so different generations can retain a sense of privacy.

Zoning can create obstacles, so it’s important to understand local covenants and neighborhood restrictions before embarking on new construction. If the plan is to build a semi-separate living area intended for grandparents, not paying tenants, it typically qualifies as a routine addition, and should carry with it no special zoning restrictions. However, if the plan is to rent it out to before or after it’s occupied by family, then it may fall under a different zoning category—specifically, it becomes “attached housing” (a duplex) in a “residential detached” only neighborhood …. an arrangement that won’t exactly fly.

Another important consideration, Guthrie adds, is parking. “Is everyone going to park their cars on the street, or do you have to build an addition onto the garage?”

Despite the hassles, despite being called a trend, multigenerational housing can be viewed as a return to square one. “This is the way Americans used to live,” says Guthrie. “Families could only afford one place. The economy is changing what we think about nuclear families. Some may see it as weird, but it used to be normal.”—Jessie Knadler