Permanent multi-generational homes: Would you do it?

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Could I live here happily with my mom, and my kids… forever? (By: hobvias sudoneighm - CC BY 2.0)
Could I live here happily with my mom, and my kids… forever? (By: hobvias sudoneighmCC BY 2.0)
My mother and I are contemplating buying a house together and establishing a multi-generational home. The idea was that it would be a house that she could retire in, that I would care for it and her as she aged, and hopefully find its way to my children. We’re American and, for most of our peers and relatives, this is not a common practice. We’ve reviewed articles on moving back in with parents for the short term, but don’t see much advice for the long term.

Has anyone else on Offbeat Home & Life lived, or perhaps grew up, in a multi-generational home? If so, I would love to hear about your experiences. -Claire

Comments on Permanent multi-generational homes: Would you do it?

  1. My great aunt and uncle did just this.

    They had 116 acres out in east Texas. When they bought it, they built their own A-frame house. When their 2 daughters were mostly grown up, they added on a huge extention (which ended up being about twice the size of the A-frame). One daughter moved out, and the other stayed when she married and had a son. My aunt and uncle mostly kept to the “old” part of the house, and everyone else occupied the “new.” But the kitchen and main living room were on the old side, so everyone always gathered there together.

    I visited quite often when I was a kid. I was never aware of any issues that arose because of the 3 generations living there all at the same time. It was probably a big help in that the house was so large, you could easily keep to yourself if you felt the need to, but it had common areas big enough for most of the extended family to visit as well.

    They did eventually give up the house several years ago. My cousins moved out to start their own small ranch, and there’s no chance that their son wanted to start a family there. My aunt and uncle just got too old to be able to care for the entire property themselves. If my cousins had wanted to stay longer (they didn’t leave until they were over 50), the house would probably still be in the family.

  2. My family has done this in some form or another, though generally for the short term the reality is very very similar. My brother and his fiance are currently living with my mom, and my mom has lived with myself, husband and daughter. My mom also lived with her mom for a while in order to try and help her after my grandfather passed away.

    I would say go for it, especially if you have a really great relationship with your mom, I would consider maybe getting a house (or splitting the one you have), into two “apartments”. That way everyone can have their space when they need it, and can come together when they also need it. Cohousing may be a better search word for you, though it generally involves more than one family and is a large complex, the idea is essentially the same. Each family has their own space, but common areas are there for everyone to use and come together with.

    I would also start going through everyone’s possessions and start really thinking about what you need and want. Combining two households into one can be really tough in terms of space and stuff, you don’t want to feel like you don’t have ownership over everything and visa versa for your mom. You also don’t want to have a lot of “things” in storage, this can lead to a lot of stress for everyone involved. Making everyone feel that they have ownership over the house and the items in the house is important to making it not feel like you are a visitor in your own home.

    I would also go over parenting rules if you have kids, who is going to get up in the middle of the night, treats, etc. It would be similar if you were combining families, there will be a new dynamic in terms of parenting. If these things aren’t somewhat sorted out early on, it can become very stressful.

    Otherwise, I think its a great thing to do. The nice thing when my mom was living with us was that she could spend time with her granddaughter whenever she wanted. Our daughter really benefited from having that one on one time with grandma, and since my mom moved out it has been something we all have missed. I am not going to lie, it can be stressful, but set up properly it can be a really great thing.

    • This has been majorly helpful, thank you. One thing that we’re both worried about is that as much as we get along, we wanted to maintain some sense of autonomy. So your suggestions for “cohousing” and establishing boundaries with space and possessions is great.

      I know for some short term cohousing families there’s trouble establishing authority (or relinquishing it, I guess). A kind of “My House, My Rules”. Did this come up for you?

      • Yes, that “My House, My Rules” has come up pretty much every time someone in our family has co-housed with someone else. Not intentionally, but more because we didn’t establish things right away. It works itself out, but there can be a lot of tension until things get worked out.

    • I wrote my college research paper on co-housing. It’s such a great idea that I would love to see gain more traction. I would go for it if I had the opportunity and the right community. 🙂

    • I made a bigger comment later on, but when combining stuff or coming up with “house rules”, please think about the legal impact this change would have on each other.
      Who “owns” the house? Who “owns” the stuff in it? How will bills be paid? What if one of you gets married/divorced?

  3. My husband and I have talked with my parents about having a large house or a duplex with them. I love the idea, I see so many ways that it can be beneficial for both sides. Make sure there are ground rules and boundaries in place before hand and have a plan on how to talk it out if there are problems that come up.
    We lived with my parents for four years while we were saving for a house and it went quite well, that is why we would do it again. As my parents are getting older I like that we can step in and help them out with things that are becoming difficult for them to do.
    Go for it.

    • I’m right there with you regarding the benefits. It’s really important to me that she’ll be able to relax and enjoy retirement.

      As for housing, duplex is our ideal situation in terms of just the space, but basic searches online don’t turn up much for our region!

      • My family bought a 2 family “semi-attached” house (that they use as a 1 family). They found it listed under the “rental property for sale” real estate listings, as the owner at the time was renting out both sides of the house.

        So maybe check to see if there is separate section for rental or investment properties for sale, a 2 family house might be listed there.

        • Also maybe other keywords like MIL apartment, granny flat, etc. I’m sure there’s a lot of other (not always flattering) terms for houses with a shared cohabitation kind of set-up.

  4. I’m still very young (23) and am one of those people that moved back in with my parents briefly. For me, the biggest problem was they still treated me like I was in high school, and I honestly regressed to acting like I was still in high school. Now, don’t get me wrong, I freaking love my parents. My mom’s my best friend besides my fiance. But it just wasn’t working for us. I think the main problem was that I just didn’t feel independent as I never had the chance to create my own life as I had come back straight from college.

    If you already have your own life and feel independent, I don’t think it would be a huge issue, so long as everyone sets boundaries and respects them.

    • My Mum and I had similar issues. Not quite the high school level, but because it was a temporary situation, I was living in her house. The only space that was “mine” was my room and even then it was not really mine. The biggest issue was of expectations. It’s important to have a clear understanding of negotiated rules. My mum is the type to wonder when I will be home, will I need supper, what time should I be expected. She cannot help waiting up, at least to some extent. I felt frustrated going from living on my own for years to suddenly having someone want to know if I’d be home for supper or what time I would be home, what I was doing, etc. (Thankfully my husband and I have negotiated this a bit better.) I also took advantage of having supper made for me, having someone else purchase groceries, etc.

      I think if you negotiate it as a partnership it can be totally doable. Make sure that you discuss expectations and things like babysitting, household chores (what is manageable for who), finances, space ownership/decorating, etc. Shared spaces should feel like shared spaces.

    • Yeah, I’ve had a number of people move in with their parents and have some issues. Either because they HAD gotten used to being independent and resented going back to living in someone else’s home with some one else’s rules, or like you, never got a chance to properly develop independence.

      When I graduated college, however, my Dad and I moved into an apartment together, as he is a long distance commuter and needed a “part time” apartment and I was an intern who needed super cheap living accomodations. Even though he owned the building (it was a triplex) we went in with the understanding that we were roommates and acted accordingly. We moved in at the same time, furnished things together, hung out and drank beers on the porch, etc. I have never felt like I moved “back” in with my parents. My dad and I were roommates for a year, and it was surprisingly awesome, but as far as our authority over the space went, we were equals.

      I think, if you’re planning on establishing an intentionally multi-generational home, it’s important to frame it this way. You are not a boomerang kid moving back in with your parents. She is not a retiree moving in with her daughter. You are two people, who happen to be related, moving in TOGETHER.

  5. I think that multi-generational houses are excellent. Unfortunately, I had a bad experience with it. After my parents divorced, my mother could not afford to buy on her own. I was not looking to buy a house at the time, but I wanted to help her out. In order to protect ourselves, we had a clause written in that if either of us died, the other would be the sole owner of the house regardless of whether the person that died was married at the time of death. That was the only eventuality that we considered. Everything went well for two years. Then, my mother started dating someone who treated me badly. She refused to admit that there was a problem. Then, they got engaged, and I decided that I needed to move out. We had never planned for something like that to happen. They “bought me out,” but I ended up losing a lot of money in the deal. I also found out after they got married that in their will they left half of the house to his son, and my four siblings and I split the other half. My mother and I were extremely close before she started dating that man, and I never would have believed that something like this could have ever happened.

    So, I do encourage you to move in with your mother, I think that it is important to think about all of the possible things that could happen and what you would do in those situations.

  6. My husband and I are hoping to buy land with my parents in a few years, once they sell their house. Ideally we would be able to build two small houses near each other, but a larger house would work too, as long as we have our own space.

    • This is what I want to do with my family- I am one of five children, the oldest three married, one with a child. My older sisters have a different mother than me and my younger siblings, but their mother is still a part of the family. I’d love to have a huge amount of land that we could build small houses on and grow food, keep a small amount of livestock, etc. So far my mother and oldest sister are down for it (as are her husband and my own) but the rest of the family seems kinda… ehhh.

  7. It was not always an unusual dynamic. It used to be pretty much the norm, especially as parents started aging. My family when I was growing up all lived within the same yard, basically, but in different houses (my parents, grandparents and great-grands) and everyone looked after everyone. Now my parents and my last living grandmother share a home. As a child growing up with that dynamic, I personally found it to be wonderful. We also have friends in areas where real estate is at a premium (such as New York City) who have several generations living in a home together and nobody bats an eye at it.

    Not to be negative Nancy, but the world is changing. Our economic climate is changing. The safety nets and support systems provided by the government that many of us hope to have to take care of us when we’re old or sick are no longer a sure bet. People 100 years ago lived together and were self sufficient together and took care of one another as a family. I think that it’s only common sense to consider moving back to that dynamic, because I think that a future is coming where it will again be our best option for looking after our families and making a successful life together.

    I hope it works out well for you and am interested in learning more from your experiences. (And yes, I would totally do it. I’ve talked to my folks about moving in with us when my grandma passes, but it seems more likely that they will end up with my brother and his wife, who are in the process of buying a larger house with this in mind. They plan to have children soon, and the idea is that my parents will live with them and help out with the house. My dad will work because he likes his job and my mother will retire and provide childcare. My parents and my brother and his wife have lived together before.)

    • It’s precisely because of the economic obstacles that I’m looking into this. My mother isn’t as pessimistic, but I work, albeit indirectly, in the employee benefits industry and one thing I’ve noticed from observation and articles is that healthcare and retirement are looking more and more unstable. Not to mention, many of my friends and I realized that some of our peers in this area got a huge boost in assets and financial security because their parents subsidized rent or housing for them. I’d like to set something up where my child has that choice as well.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  8. Growing up, we lived in a two flat with my grandmother. I loved it. I felt so lucky to have had the chance to be so close to her while she was still here. What was so nice about our set up is that it was basically a two flat on it’s side, with two complete houses attached by a hallway so everyone had their own privacy. Obviously not an option available to everyone, but it worked well for us.
    One hurdle my mother had to deal with was cattiness from her siblings when my grandmother died and her splitting the house in half with half going to my parents and half to her and her siblings, even though it was all laid out very clearly in the appropriate paperwork.

  9. I have no direct experience to offer on this, other than as a long-time expat (American living abroad) that has seen how many other cultures do this gracefully and with great benefit to all in the household. Seeing kids who get the benefit of growing up with their grandparents (and sometimes aunts, uncles & cousins) right there – and truly a part of their nuclear family – has often made me contemplate how to find some sort of balance on this in my own life someday. Thanks for bringing this up, and thanks to all who have shared experiences in the comments. So helpful and fascinating to stretch beyond our typical expectations of hyper-independence in the American lifestyle!

  10. My grandmother moved in with us when I was 10 and lived with my family until she passed away 3.5 years later. I absolutely loved having her be a part of our household and I know that she greatly enjoyed watching me grow up up close. The interesting thing about the arrangement is that it was sort of by accident. My family was moving from Missouri to Michigan and she came with us. At first she looked at apartments, then we looked at houses with mother-in-law apartments. When we couldn’t find either an apartment or suitable house, we moved into a single family house with a large back bedroom that we planned to add an extra kitchen to so she would have her own apartment. In the end, she enjoyed being part of the family and we never wound up building the addition.

    I remember her cooking a lot of the family meals since she loved to cook and going to the grocery store gave her an excuse to leave the house every day. My mother still cooked many meals as well, and I’m assuming they worked out who would do what in advance. Cleaning was handled by my parents, my brother and myself since my grandma was in her 70s, plus we had a cleaning lady come in every three weeks. Grandma would split her time between the open family areas and her back bedroom, where she had her easy chair and a TV. She would “babysit” me if my older brother wasn’t around, but probably no more than when she had her own apartment back in Missouri!

    My advice would be to actually recreate what we did by accident and start out with more separation than you think you’ll actually need. It’s a lot easier to decide to spend more time with each other than to carve out personal space once everything is merged. I would spend time talking about household duties as well. Will you each be responsible for cleaning your separate spaces or will there be overlap? Will you cook and eat together or separately? If together, who will cook which meals? Will finances be merged (like a marriage) or household bills split (like roommates)? Will your mother provide childcare when you’re not there? How often? How much notice does she need? Generally speaking, these are all technical things that you can work out! It was incredibly fulfilling living with my grandma and I hope your kids feel the same.

  11. My dad and two of my grandparents (separately) all live in the houses that their parents owned. For our family, we moved into my dad’s childhood home when I was young to help take care of my grandma. We built an addition for her, so she would have her own space. Now my sister and her boyfriend live there.

    It was neat to be around my grandma all the time. However, she was sick and it really stressed my mom out to try and raise three girls, take care of Grandma, and work on top of that.

    One cautionary thing is the financial aspect, however you end up doing it. My parents bought the house from my grandma, thus having a new mortgage, and also spent money on the addition, parking spaces, etc. They were counting on many more years of her being alive (and therefore contributing an income from social security or whatever). It’s really influenced my parents’ money situation for years and years.

  12. When I finished graduate school, I moved back in with my parents with the intent of it being a short-term stay. Well, that has turned into an almost two-year stay already, as my husband and I married shortly after graduation and our incomes do not leave enough for us to afford to move.

    From my experience, a lot depends on the relationship you have with your parents. As someone previously mentioned, it works well if you’ve had a few years of independence. My parents and I have developed a more peer-type relationship, where they don’t feel the need to look after me as a child, though I will always be their child they wish to look after, if you know what I mean.

    Overall, it has a lot of benefits–we all look after one another and help each other out wherever we need. It does, however, have its drawbacks: with the intent to eventually move, we haven’t downsized in possessions–we essentially have a ton of items in storage in our bedroom and that sort of thing.

    As someone who enjoys more adventurous (aka, non-bland/simple) cooking that that with which I was raised, it can be difficult–1. Not everyone is as adventurous as I and thus, there is some skepticism/fear when I cook, and 2. It kills me that I can’t have my own kitchen setup/that I have to share a tiny kitchen with other people walking in and out all the time/prepping other food.

    For the most part, though, it works. My sister and brother-in-law have expressed interest in my husband and me moving in with them when they buy a house, as they would love to save in daycare costs and have me watch their kids (which I would do). I have made clear that we must have our own kitchen and that sort of thing if this is to be a possibility. Probably for us, the ideal would be two sides of a duplex–for independence while still being close and connected.

    Sorry for the long message, it’s just something that is very much on my mind, especially as my parents are getting older. I’m curious, too, for those who live in areas where multi-generational living is common: how often do the aging go into assisted living/nursing or retirement homes? I would imagine that this type of facility is not as prevalent…

  13. I’d suggest making sure that the bedrooms are of a suitable size so that you always have your own room.

    I wouldn’t want to be in the situation where I’d be moving into the big bedroom that was formerly my mothers. I’d prefer to always keep my own space, not have to live in something that I associated so strongly as being someone else’s room.

  14. My first reaction is:

    I love both sets of our parents, but yeah, no. I would be okay with having them on the premises if we had big piece of land (we’d love to have a little farm) but not in the same building. I need my own space in a big way. I’d reconsider when and if one of them needed constant in-home care…but I don’t really excel at caregiving (one of the many reasons I don’t have kids) so I think honestly that’d be better left to one of my sisters anyway, haha. I totally commend people who can do it, though!

  15. I love that other people can make this family arrangement work, but this is my personal nightmare. I’m lucky enough to love both of our families, but I’m also an introvert who needs lots of personal space and quiet time to recharge, not to mention that both of our sets of parents would drive me to insanity if I had to be around them full time. This could be revisited if/when someone is elderly and we all decide it would be better for them to live with us. Otherwise, no.

    But if you and your family have the right personalities to make it work, that’s awesome! Have at it and good luck!

  16. I have not done this, aside from briefly living with my parents a couple of times in the past decade. I think I could definitely live in a multi-generational home with my parents and in some ways it would be a great situation. However, there are a few things I think would be important.
    -Enough space for everyone to be able to get away and do their own thing. My dad loves gardening, outdoor, fitx-it, wood-working projects, so he would need some space for that. My mom also likes working on projects and needs room for all of her books, and her own comfy chair in a quiet spot to read and watch tv. I would like some sort of sewing and craft area, I’m sure my husband would like an office or a desk for working or playing on the computer. My daughter needs somewhere to play and store her toys, and hopefully a safe, enclosed outdoor space. I don’t think we would need a huge living area, but we’d have to make lots of multipurpose spaces to fit everyone’s needs. If we did a similar living arrangement with my parents, we would probably get a piece of land and have multiple living and working spaces – even if one of them was just a mobile or home or tiny cottage or something like that. Sheds, shops, garages, storage, etc for working on projects and maybe having places for guests to stay.
    If we were going to be living in one actual house together, having a small kitchenette , at least 2 bathrooms, and hopefully 2 living room/den areas would be great, along with a craft room/office.
    I think it can definitely work, but having everything organized, comfortable, and an equal feeling of ownership over the place would be important to me.

  17. When I was four, my parents built a second house on our five-acre property for my paternal grandparents. My grandmother had to go into a nursing home a few years later, as her dementia required more care than my grandfather could give, but I loved having him next door. He cooked dinner most nights, and would look after me when my parents had an evening out. As his health failed, my mom looked after him. (My other grandparents had a similar situation with my uncle’s family.)

    Two years ago I moved back home, into my grandfather’s old house. I’d been away for ten years. It’s mostly been a success. I have to assert myself sometimes, because I’m the baby of the family and have always been treated as such. Mom’s alone now and she is happy to have the company. We take turns cooking dinner, and on the weekends discuss how our weeks will be and what nights we’ll eat together. We’ve all had to adjust, but I’m very happy with the situation and looking forward to my future children having a grandparent next door, too.

  18. i’m afraid i don’t have any advice, but i just wanted to say that i think this is *so cool*.

    we’ve been talking a lot about how practical and cool the idea of shared family housing is (in our case with friends, not family due to location).

    the single-family home sort of feels like a “built to fail” thing: you two adults (or one!) are supposed to bring in all the money, take care of/raise the kids, deal with housekeeping, feed everyone, and also you are expected to have a rich and fulfilling life outside of your home. given that, i *love* the idea of sharing all those duties (and the fun stuff!) among more folks – it seems infinitely practical. given the right folks, of course.

  19. We have bought a duplex with the intention of doing this (or co-housing with another family) in a couple more years. I’d been watching the rental market for months, in case one came along. It did, we bought it (with my parent’s money) and for now I’m managing it as a rental. I haven’t seen anything comparable come along since, so I’m glad we pounced on it. I don’t like being a landlord, but I figure that’s the price I pay.

    For now, we’ve planted fruit trees so they’ll be bearing by the time we move in.

  20. I actually grew up in a multigenerational situation and then moved back into one as an adult. I’ll break this up into three parts, because it’s kind of covered three phases of my life.

    When I was in kindergarden, my grandfather had a massive stroke. My mother is an only child, and with her parents living across the country there was no way for her to help them as much as she would’ve liked across that distance. At the time, my parents had purchased a duplex because they were using the money from the rental apartment portion to help subsidise their mortgage as a growing family. But, given the circumstances my grandparents moved into the apartment in what was originally going to be a temporary situation until they found a place of their own. They lived there until my grandmother passed ten years later and my grandfather moved into a veteran care center a few years afterward. From my perspective, it was great. I loved having my grandparents so close and being able to spend time with my grandmother every day after school all the way into high school. However, it was difficult for my mother at times. She is very ‘modern’ (according to my grandfather) and there were times when the fact that she was a museum curator caused friction between the two of them in day to day interactions. Eventually, she ended up coming home to help with medical situations for them in the long run. I think the lesson learned there is really understanding your relationship with your parents before moving back into that domestic situation again. If you have significant differences of opinion, living together doesn’t make them go away. But, sometimes the benefits greatly outweigh the difficulties.

    The second phase came for my husband (then fiance) and I when I was in college. We moved into that same apartment that my grandparents had occupied so that my parents could help us going to college. We were given very inexpensive rent based on the understanding that they were trying to support our education and they weren’t able to pay for my college tuition at the time. However, being honest here, I kind of took advantage of the situation as a young adult more than I should have. We didn’t have a formal lease and there were times when they had expectations for what we were going to contribute to the household that weren’t 100% what we expected or actually did. Again, looking back, having real world expectations would have helped me I think to appreciate what I was getting from my parents. Even if they hadn’t ‘enforced’ the lease every month, I would have had a better understanding of what they needed for the arrangement to be best for both of us.

    Now, we live in a house that shares a back yard with my parents. As married adults (we don’t have children) this has been much better the second time around. Now my mother is the one who’s having health concerns, my husband as well, and having the family so close together has been a wonderful benefit. I’m not going to pretend that it’s always perfect, but it is much better than it was the first time around. While every once in a while I do seriously consider running far far away, most days it’s a wonderful thing to be able to look out the back window and wave to my dad while he’s out in the garden.

  21. At this moment, no. But my husband and I have had discussions about my father, because my mother’s health has been in decline, and he doesnt really know how to cook or do laundry. We agreed that if the need arose, we would find a way to accommodate my Dad, and we think it would benefit all of us.

  22. My husband and I are considering moving (with our about-to-be-born daughter!) across the country and we’ll probably be moving into my parents’ house, which will also be housing them and my brother while we look for work and get our feet back underneath us.

    I’ll be honest, I would be much more nervous about this if it weren’t for a couple things:
    -My cousin, with her husband and daughters, live with my aunt (her mom) and her aunt (her mom’s sister). That house is laid out almost like three mini-apartments with a shared kitchen. The rest of my aunt’s side of the family lives near by and frequently visits. My cousin’s daughters were obviously benefiting from having so many people who love them around. They were absurdly happy, well adjusted kids. That arrangement helped with health and child-care issues.

    • Huh, that’s weird. It posted prematurely but the edit box didn’t show up.

      The other thing is that my mother had something sort-of similar when she was a kid. Her parents had an apartment in a building owned by I believe her grandparents. Her grandparents were upstairs. Her aunts and uncles were in apartments down the hall. I plan on this being temporary but it doesn’t seem so weird to her.

      Good luck! I would say it probably helps if you’ve been independent for awhile and if your parents are in the habit of respecting the fact you’re an adult.

  23. My grandparents are getting on in age, so they moved in with my stepmom. Then she got very sick, and they were taking care of her more than she was taking care of them. They lived two states away. My husband and I packed all three of them up and moved them to the city we live in. We wanted to find a place big enough for all of us, but we couldn’t find anything close enough to our jobs. In the end we kept our town home in the city close to our jobs and bought them a big house in the burbs. For now they’re close enough that we can take care of the stuff they need help with, and when they need more full time care, there will be plenty of room for the hubby and I to move in.

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