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Under One Roof: How To Keep the Peace in a Multigenerational Household

Two types of multigenerational households are on the rise.


If you’re asked to picture a typical American home, you’ll probably imagine a single-family dwelling holding a mom, dad, kids and maybe a family pet. That picture isn’t as typical as it once was. Today’s family home may also house grandparents or a young adult or two. Multigenerational living is a growing trend that makes sense to many. It’s one way of reducing expenses — but those who have experience say it has multiple advantages, as well as some challenges.

Two types of multigenerational households are on the rise: two-generation and three-generation. The first is created when adult children continue to live with their parents or return to live with their parents at an age when they would typically be on their own. The three-generation type consists of grandparents, parents, and kids living together.

To explain the three-generation trend, San Antonio realtor Lacy Hendricks cites an aging population and rising housing costs. “Multigenerational housing is very common in cultures outside of the United States,” Hendricks said, adding that areas with culturally diverse populations tend to have the highest levels of interest in co-housing.

When it comes to two-generation households, low starting salaries and big student debt have fed the growth. Often young adults can’t afford to live on their own, and when they can afford it, they may want to save on housing in order to pay off debt more quickly.

Multigenerational Living: When It’s Not a Good Idea

In some cases, family members shouldn’t even try to live together. Of course, family members should love each other if they are going to live together, but they also need to like each other. Shared interests, compatible habits, and genuine affection for each other will contribute to a harmonious household.

On the other hand, certain individuals may be good-hearted but may have character traits that don’t jive with sharing space. Those who are picky about their possessions, overly meticulous about accounting, or too protective of boundaries may not be a good fit for multigenerational housing.

Caring for the Kiddies

One reason why some families move in together is to facilitate child care. Parents reap multiple benefits when grandparents are healthy enough to help out with childcare. Parents save money, and those with early working hours don’t have to struggle to get children out of the house and deposited at daycare. When children have minor illnesses, they can stay at home with the grandparents, and the parents won’t have to miss work.

Since most grandparents enjoy being with their grandchildren, this arrangement has benefits for them, too. Still, parents should be careful not to regard the grandparents as built-in babysitters who are always available for duty.

Easier Elder Care

When older family members begin to have health issues, moving in with their adult children can make sense. Not only can their health and well-being be more easily supervised, but they won’t suffer from the loneliness that is so pervasive in the elderly.

Unlike childcare, however, which usually gets easier as children grow, elder care typically gets more difficult with time. Sometimes young families find themselves dealing with accessibility issues, or having to find space for an additional caregiver. Still, many families find that keeping their loved ones in a home setting is worth the trouble.

Financial Issues

Sharing expenses in a multigenerational home isn’t always simple. Should expenses be split down the middle, or shared on a per-person basis? Will food expenses be shared, or will each branch of the family supply its own meals? Who pays for home repairs?

It’s important to have a financial agreement in place before the move takes place, and the agreement should probably be in writing. Every penny shouldn’t have to be accounted for, however, and family members should be prepared for some inequity — and for their stash of chocolates to be raided occasionally. Everyone’s self control has limits.

Other Sticky Situations

Among other potential problems, differing housekeeping standards can be a problem. A meet-in-the middle approach can work. Those who care more about cleaning should be prepared to do more than their fair share, while those with a more relaxed approach should be prepared to step up their game.

Boundaries, both physical and otherwise, can also create problems. It’s best if everyone has some private space, and that others stay out of it. Another boundary issue is control of the children. Grandparents who are in charge of the children during working hours should let the parents handle the children at other times.

First for Women reader Connie Nelson, whose mother lived with her for nine years, said that she and her mom clashed over the children. After her mother criticized the way her granddaughter did laundry, Nelson and her mother had a “make-or-break” moment. “She backed off, and we began to have a good relationship,” Nelson remembers, adding that her mom’s presence made their home more “balanced and nurturing.”

Reader LeAnn Rittel-Fenner, who lives with her daughter and grandson, said that the biggest issue is that often she must play the parental role instead of being able to enjoy being a grandparent. On a more positive note, she feels that she really knows her grandson, and “I get cuddles every day!”

Housing That Works

Besides interpersonal issues, sharing housing requires the right kind of house. Unfortunately, many American homes fall into the category of Peter Pan housing — housing for those who will never age. Such houses have lots of levels, sharp corners, tight bathrooms and poor lighting.

In response to financial and cultural forces, Builders have begun to offer floor plans that are more accessible and more share-friendly. These include plans with two downstairs master suites. Lennar even offers NextGen plans, with the tagline “The Home Within a Home.” These floor plans typically offer a private suite within the home, with a kitchenette and sitting area as well as a private bedroom and bathroom.

Multiple generations can be accommodated by sharing lots instead of sharing houses. Sometimes called granny flats or casitas, accessory dwelling units or ADUs can be added to existing lots when zoning and deed restrictions allow. Regulations and fees are being eased in booming cities such as Seattle and Portland as officials see ADUs as a method of “infill” – adding additional housing in an area that has already been developed.

Multigenerational Living: Historically Speaking

What some see as a new trend is actually a resurrected old trend. In the United States extended family members tended to live close together until after World War II, when young people began to leave their hometowns and move to the city. Soon a home of one’s own was seen as a measure of success.

Today, many families are redrawing that picture of success. To them, success means choosing a way of living that best utilizes the resources of the extended family, while fostering closeness. To them, multigenerational living is not a way to live, but a way to thrive.

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