In-Law Suites: Making Room for Grandpa, Grandma

Adoption of independent living areas — or in-law suites — for grandparents are gaining traction among families

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

In Amish culture, most homesteads include a “dawdi haus” (grandparent home) on the premises. Whether freestanding or connected, the smaller house provides a place for grandparents to live that’s not isolated, yet affords each family privacy.

“That’s the basic idea behind the in-law suite, a concept that’s “really starting to take off,” according to Denise Pallotta, showroom sales associate at Frank Webb Home in Syracuse. A certified aging-in-place specialist by the National Association of Home Builders, Pallotta said that the baby boomers are the driving force behind the uptick in in-law suites.

“They want to stay near family but not give up their independence,” Pallotta said. “The in-law suite is the best of both worlds. They have their own space.”

She helps clients look at the advantages and drawbacks of the in-law suite. The arrangement can save a lot of money over the cost of in-home care or nursing home care. Pallotta said that institutional care can cost $87,000 per year.

For the elderly parent, there’s security, companionship and a better chance of aging in place, especially if they take Pallotta’s advice and plan for future accommodation issues, such as grab bars, roll-under sinks, wider doorways and ramps.

The adult children can feel better about their elderly parents delaying or possibly avoiding institutional-based care. If they’re in good health, the elders may be able to help care for their grandchildren and keep an eye on pets and the property during the family’s absence during the day.

On the other hand, elderly parents will have to pare down belongings to move into an in-law suite. Many are around 900 square feet in size.

Usually, the suite offers the size equivalent of a one-bedroom apartment, including a kitchen/eating area that flows into a small seating area, full bathroom and bedroom, all on one floor. It may or may not include laundry.

Of course, they’re customizable, but the point of the in-law suite is to provide a smaller, more manageable space and eliminate responsibility for home repair, snow removal and lawn care.

“If they’ve had health issues, they don’t want a huge space,” Pallotta said.

Elderly parents will also need to feel comfortable with their adult children and grandchildren nearby. Likewise, the younger family will need to get along well with their parents.

Many elders help pay for the in-law suite by selling their home and any belongings they’ll no longer need, such as large furniture.

It’s important to discuss ahead of time what to expect, such as any financial or time contributions to the household.

“Everyone needs to be on the same page,” Pallotta said. “Sit down, talk and discuss everyone’s expectations. Ask your mom and dad for their input. Make them feel included. I’ve worked with people where everyone else is so busy, the older person is left out. They want to be able to agree with it, not be told what to do.”

It’s also important to understand zoning laws. Pallotta said that most towns’ zoning laws require shared utilities and some shared living space. Some municipalities stipulate against a separate entrance. This prevents the suite from becoming an apartment later.

For some people, buying a new home together makes more sense.

“They can take the two incomes and maybe get a nicer house because they have joint incomes when purchasing,” said Anne Trachtenberg, agent with Hunt Real Estate ERA in Manlius.

Trachtenberg advises families to select a home with a separate entrance, although separate laundry facilities usually don’t present a big problem.

She said that resale of a home with an in-law suite can be tricky, since it’s a niche market.

“Not everyone is looking for a home with an additional 700 or so square feet,” Trachtenberg said. “It’s definitely a certain market that will buy a house with an in-law suite. People won’t pay more for it if they don’t need one.”

While it makes sense to rent out the suite once it’s no longer needed, local zoning ordinances may not permit it.

“A lot of these homes are in neighborhoods where they don’t let you advertise and rent out an apartment,” Trachtenberg explained.

With open communication and planning, an in-law suite can enrich both the lives of the elderly parent and the younger generations.