Modern Family: Buying a Home for a Multi-Generational Household

The television show Modern Family provides just one example of how the definition of the American family unit is changing. Unfortunately, many homes out there are still designed for a Leave-it-to-Beaver world. The contrast is something to think about when buying a home.

Increasingly, the tidy little house with room for Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids just does not meet the demands of today's families. Those families are often more broadly defined, frequently changing, and perhaps most of all, multi-generational. The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of the US population living in multi-generational households has been rising since 1980. The number of Americans living in such households has roughly doubled since then, to 57 million.

This trend is due to a combination of factors. A weak economy and changing attitudes towards marriage have made young people in less of a hurry to buy their own homes. The aging baby boom generation increasingly needs help with various daily living tasks. Plus, some immigrant cultures traditionally value multi-generational households.

So, welcome to the modern family. When buying a home, you might want to give some thought to its suitability for multi-generational living -- if not now, then perhaps with some alterations in the future.

Here are some examples of what to look for:

  1. Wider halls. This may not be the first thing you think of, but it is an important detail. Extra rooms may prove important to a multi-generational household, but these can be somewhat readily added on if necessary. On the other hand, the interior hallways of a home can be much harder to adapt due to layout and structural issues. This may become important because wider hallways are essential to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers for older residents.
  2. Extra bedroom. When buying a home, consider getting one bedroom more than you need for your existing family, even if you are done having kids. That extra room can come in handy as a den or a guest room, and will give you some flexibility if someone needs to move in later on.
  3. Extra bathroom. Similarly, an extra bathroom can come in handy anyway when you entertain or have house guests, and it might relieve traffic jams if your household expands at some point.
  4. Bathroom size. Speaking of bathrooms, a bigger bathroom might be necessary to accommodate older household members. Things like grab bars can be added later, but without room to maneuver, they are not much help.
  5. Downstairs bedroom. While any extra room is helpful, a downstairs bedroom is an added bonus because it might be more accessible to elderly family members.
  6. Wider driveway. Some older neighborhoods have narrow driveways wedged tightly between buildings with no room for expansion. This can lead to an endlessly awkward shuffling of cars if your household has multiple generations of drivers on different schedules.
  7. Accessible entrances. Think about how easy the home is to enter and exit. If all the entrances involve steps, is their potentially room for a ramp to make the home more accessible in the future, if necessary?
  8. In-law apartment. An in-law apartment combines several of the above elements and might be the most satisfactory solution in the end. After all, it might be your in-laws, your own parents, or one of your adult -- and possibly married -- kids who ultimately takes up residence. Over multiple generations, you might find multiple uses for such a space.
  9. Flexible design. Flexibility is being built into more and more modern home designs, with changing living arrangements in mind. Some designs feature the separate entrance and stand-alone capabilities of an in-law apartment, but with adjoining doors that can be opened so the property can be used as one big home as well.

Face it: if you are about to sign up for a 30-year mortgage, you might want to think about what changes those 30 years might bring. Who knows what the modern family -- or your family -- will look like by then. This makes versatility an important element to look for when buying a home.

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