Multigenerational Homes: Real Estate's Next Big Thing as More Families Share a Space

Multigenerational homes: real estate's next big thing as more families share a spaceBeing roommates with your parents after age 21 sounds like a nightmare for most, but Jessica Bruno wouldn't have it any other way. Bruno, a 40-year-old mom, wife and DIY blogger, lives with her 62-year-old parents, Connie and Fred, in their Sutton, Mass., home.

Oh, and there's Bruno's husband, Tony, and their 6-year-old son, Tony Jr.

Think that's a lot of people under one roof? There's more. Bruno's grandparents, Grace, 80, and Fred, 82, live in the house, too. That's seven people from four generations living together in one home. Actually, make that nine: Bruno's two stepdaughters, 12-year-old twins Alexia and Gabriella -- Tony's kids from another marriage -- stay with them on weekends.

It might sound like a crowded living situation, but it's not uncommon. The Bruno family is one of 4.4 million American households who have three generations or more living under one roof. There are also an estimated 51.4 million Americans that currently live in homes with more than two generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, multigenerational households are a growing trend, up 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, a figure that will only continue to grow, experts say.

"We've seen a 25 percent increase in demand for multigenerational housing structures over the past two years and expect to see more," said Luis Tusino, CEO of the GBI-Avis building group, which specializes in building custom modular homes.

The Bruno family has gone to great lengths to accommodate all the residents of their home. They've added 2,000 square feet to the original house over the years, expanding it to 5,000 square feet with three spacious and separate "wings" -- one for each family. They've spent about $70,000 in renovations.

"Gram and gramp are in one wing; my husband, son and I are in the middle; and my parents are in the other wing," Bruno said. The home has two kitchens, five separate "living spaces," multiple television areas, two driveways and even a chairlift for Grace. "We have it set up pretty well so that everyone has their own spaces. It was a little tricky in the beginning, but setting ground rules and respecting each other's privacy is the key to success. It's insanely amazing that it works."

Though factors such as high unemployment, a battered economy and the recent housing crisis have pushed more people into multigenerational living, studies show that it's a trend that's circled back from a similar era.

History Repeating Itself

Just prior to World War II, a quarter of Americans lived with extended family, as the U.S. struggled through the Great Depression. But by 1980 the number of such households was slashed by half -- down to 12 percent from 25 percent in 1940. But that number has risen again -- spiking as the Great Recession hit in 2008, experts say. The Pew Research Center now estimates that 16 percent of Americans live in multigenerational households.

However, that may have economic benefits. Pew reports that the poverty rate among those who live in multigenerational homes is significantly lower than those who don't live with other adults other than a spouse or partner. Additionally, multigenerational households have much higher median incomes than other "average" households ($48,542 vs. $41,115 in 2009).

Though it was not financial woes that initially drove Bruno and her family to move in with her parents (they had "temporarily" moved in after the housing collapse made it impossible to sell and buy simultaneously), Bruno admits that their current arrangement certainly helps all family members save money.

"It's a great help having others to share in the expenses," Bruno said. "My mom adds up all the bills at the end of the month -- utilities, etc. -- and we split it right down the middle. Easy peasy!"

A greater division of shared responsibilities and everyday tasks (cooking, cleaning, shopping, errands) in a multigenerational household also makes the environment more conducive to emotional fulfillment, less stress and strengthened family cohesion, experts say. One survey found that 82 percent of adults living in multigenerational households found that the arrangement "enhanced family bonds." This is why in the strongly family-oriented Latino and Asian cultures the percentage of multigenerational households is much higher: 23.4 percent of Latino households and 25.9 percent of Asian households in America are multigenerational. Championed highly in both cultures are the values of interdependence and familial bonds. The national growth of multigenerational households since 1980, according to Pew, is partly a result of a rising immigrant population and the consequent cultural shifts.

"Living together, all of us, is a positive experience for everyone involved," Bruno added. "But I think we are really instilling positive family values for my son. He's 6, and he has the opportunity to live with his grandparents and great grandparents. I cannot think of a better gift to give him."

The Future of Housing?

According to homebuilder Tusino, who owns New England's largest housing developer, the rise in multigenerational households over the past few years has changed the landscape of modern home construction. The GBI-Avis CEO said that many families are now looking to either build a multigenerational-friendly home from scratch -- more informally known as the "in-law" setup, with separate entrances, custom floors and sections that feature senior-friendly kitchenettes, bathrooms and amenities -- or retrofit their existing structure with a modular room to accommodate extended family.

"The most common renovation would have to be adding entire wings to an existing house," said Tusino. These add-ons cost around $130 to $150 per square foot on average, and if they're modular constructions, they can take anywhere from four to six weeks to complete (or four to six months to build on-site), he added.

"Usually the wings are 600 to 800 square feet, depending on the town and their guidelines," Tusino said. "It's much more economical to add on, as you're able to customize the addition with high-end amenities. Although, we do have many clients opt [to construct a multigenerational-friendly] base home as well."

multigenerational home design, LennarFor those who do opt to build or buy such a new home, there are more and more options available. Just last month, Lennar Homes launched a new line of "NextGen" homes built specifically for multigenerational households. Essentially a "home within a home," the new line includes a carved-out space within the house that has its own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area. (See floorplan at right). Similarly, due to increasing demand, custom housing design firm Drummond House Plans recently created a home plan collection specifically to satisfy the need for multigenerational homes -- a need we should apparently expect to see grow in the coming years, says Salon.com.

The rising interest in and demand for these "new" housing structures is also documented by the wealth of online resources targeted to homeowners who want to renovate their existing homes to accommodate their parents, grandparents, or even grown children looking to move back into the nest. In the past two years alone, the proliferation and popularity of DIY forums, how-to videos and blogs -- including Bruno's "Four Generations, One Roof" -- offering homeowners advice and instructions on how to configure their homes for added family members, has been telling.

But will these multigenerational living arrangements stick, or is this just another retro fad? According to Pew, if the demographic forces of immigration and delayed marriage continue, along with economic forces such as unemployment and a depressed housing market, we should certainly expect to see more and more families come together under one roof to rally resources and provide each other emotional support.

Despite some minor challenges, Bruno said, the more, the merrier.

"It's a work in progress," Bruno admitted. "But you can't beat built-in babysitters and multiple fridges to raid if you're hungry!"

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