If you are a homebuyer or renovator who is a member of the sandwich generation — caring for children on one side and aging parents on the other — then the idea of homes with in-law suites can hold a unique appeal.
Although it's their namesake, in-law suites are not limited to housing in-laws. Also sometimes called granny flats or multigenerational households, these spaces often accommodate seniors living at the homes of their adult children. They are typically attached to the main house or located in a separate dwelling on the property and have their own private entrance, full bathroom and kitchen. Their technical term is "accessory dwelling unit."
As you look at houses with these suites or consider adding one to your own home, here are five tips for ensuring a comfortable and safe in-law space.
1. Make Sure the Accommodations Are Adequate
Someone who enjoys whipping up favorite family recipes may need a fully outfitted kitchen, while someone with less interest and ability in cooking might be able to get by with a microwave and minifridge. If both parents will live there, gauge whether the suite has enough room for a large enough bed, both sets of clothing and medical equipment storage space for two. A suite intended for full-time housing will probably need more extensive amenities than one used for occasional extended visits.
2. Be Aware of Accessibility
The ideal in-law suite is located on the ground level of the home, since seniors are more likely to have health issues and mobility limitations that make it hard to use stairs. If an upstairs unit is your only option, a chair lift or elevator can be a good way to prioritize accessibility for someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty walking.
Consider furnishing exterior entrances to the in-law suite — and perhaps even the main part of the house — with ramps. Inside, doorways should be large enough for wheelchairs to go through, and rooms should have space for a wheelchair or walker to maneuver. Even if your parent or in-law doesn't currently use a wheelchair, it's smart to prepare for the future possibility.
3. Make Provisions for Safety
Whether you're buying a new house with an in-law suite or creating a new living space on your existing property, pay attention to safety issues. Check for fall-prevention features, such as nonskid flooring materials and adequate lighting for hallways and outdoor paths. Bathrooms should feature grab bars, a toilet with a raised or "comfort height" seat and a bench for the shower or tub. Add anti-scald valves to the bath and kitchen faucets to prevent accidental burns.
4. Allow Space for Privacy
Privacy can be challenging for homeowners in the sandwich generation who share a household with elderly parents and teen or adult children. Ideally, an in-law suite will provide enough separation from the rest of the property for you, your elderly parent and anyone else in the family to enjoy time to themselves. Individual privacy needs will vary, but the design of your in-law suite should take everyone's preferences into account.
5. Check Local Zoning Rules
Zoning and permitting regulations for building accessory dwelling units vary from place to place. If you're looking at homes with in-law suites on-site, check to see if the proper permits are in place. In the case you plan to build a space for a parent to live in on your current property, you'll also want to look into your area's zoning rules.
According to the National Association of Realtors, prepandemic figures for people buying multigenerational homes showed an even split between those moving aging parents into the home and those accommodating adult children moving back home. Now, the top reason is caring for aging parents, the association reports.
The sandwich generation is sizable, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving; more than 11 million Americans care for both an adult family member and children at home. That market of dual caregivers no doubt contributes to interest in homes with in-law suites.
Whether you want to find or create an accessory dwelling unit for your loved ones, the right planning helps ensure your home has space that works for your entire family.