The In-Law Suite Life

Although multigenerational living arrangements might seem strange at first, they were once commonplace. In mid- to late-nineteenth-century America, the majority of elderly parents and grandparents lived with their children. By the twentieth century, this trend steadily declined, hitting a low of about 12 percent of the population in 1980, per Pew Research.

What’s old is new again, however–multigenerational living is a booming home trend. In sheer numbers, the sixty-four million Americans living in such homes (which is 20 percent of the country) as of 2016 are the most ever in US history, making in-law suites a desirable home renovation in many ways for you, your family, and potential future buyers.

grandparent and grandchild playing

Digging Deeper

What does multigenerational really mean? There are many definitions of multigenerational. The US Census defines it as having three or more generations living in a single residence. This usually includes grandparents, their children, and their grandkids.

Why people choose this living arrangement is a little more complicated. Sometimes an elderly parent needs companionship and care. Sometimes, it’s a financial decision. For example, cohabitating is a more affordable option than a nursing facility. To save money or focus on their careers, more twentysomethings choose to live with their parents or move back in with them.

The benefits are real. Grandparents can see their grandchildren daily, and vice versa. This leads to greater family bonding, and for some, less loneliness, and possibly more security. A babysitter can be hired by parents. Shared chores and finances can be possible. Family members who would normally not visit are more likely to do so.

family cooking

Multiple Generations, Multiple Needs

Of course, such living conditions often require adjustments, both from the families and to the houses themselves–especially when it comes to creating an in-law suite. To provide adequate space, comfort, privacy, and security for the new residents, the existing house must be renovated or extended.

What are the most desired features? Eric Tilghman is an operations manager and former lead carpenter at Tilghman Builders, Churchville, Pennsylvania. He says that a kitchen is essential, as well as a bathroom and laundry area. He says, “ADA compliance must be discussed with older family members for in-law suites. Especially for something like a bathroom .”


As you can see, all of these needs point to independence. For older relatives, it is vital to feel independent and able to do their own thing with minimal help from others.

This extends to the outside of the house, according to Tilghman. He notes that a private entrance is a good idea. It’s helpful to have an outdoor option, such as a covered patio or a balcony that overlooks the backyard, which we did with one of our projects. A few years back, we had a project where we ended with two front doors at the front of our house. They were on different levels. These considerations will make the person who occupies the space feel as if it is their .”


parent and child using computer

Possible pain points

While there are many positive aspects to expanding your home, there are some common obstacles.


In order to ensure that your project meets ADA standards, you will need to obtain variance and zoning permission from your township. This can complicate the process. Tilghman cites the example of the two-front-door house as an example: The zoning board was concerned about the unusual design becoming trendy.


In-law suites can be added to older homes that are over fifty years old. It can be difficult to make the addition look as if it has always existed, but most builders will be able achieve this. Tilghman states that “we go to great lengths in order to keep the characteristics of our house” “Those are always important details .”

Who’s the Boss?

When asked what the most difficult part of an in law suite project is, Tilghman quickly replied. He says, “It’s like you have two customers.” He says, “Say that we have grandpop. He’s paying for his suite in-laws, and he’s putting it up on his son’s home. Grandpop may be able to answer my questions about cabinet colors, but his son might have other ideas. This is a challenge every time. We try to make things easier by mentioning that we are asking questions and reviewing options to remove regrets .”

Keep the dialogue open from the beginning to prevent this problem. From the beginning, all parties need to meet and agree on ground rules.

Keep Your Eye on ROI

And finally, the cost. As you can imagine, an in-law suite project can get rather pricey, depending on where you live, the size, and the amenities–it can cost $125,000 or more for a typical 500- to 1,000-square-foot addition. You can reduce the cost by remodeling an existing space like a basement or garage or choosing less expensive materials such as flooring.

You can also reap financial rewards if you are focused on the long-term. Your house will be more appealing to potential buyers if you sell it in the future. The extra square footage can be used as an in-law suite or as a rental property.

Multigenerational living is not for everyone. It requires adjustment for all. If you choose to make such an arrangement, it is easy to enjoy the benefits, including increased family time, the possibility of having a babysitter at home, savings opportunities, and a return on your investment. The best part? The best benefit? You are able to open your home up for someone you love when they need it most.

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