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Thinking of adding an in-law apartment to your home? Read this first

When done right, everyone can be happy

Two people holding boxes move into a new apartment. Credit: Getty Images / PixelsEffect

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Now, more than ever, families are seeking creative ways to live comfortably under one roof.

Like many Boomers, an aging, widowed homeowner in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, found herself in a situation where she needed to make a life-changing decision about where she would live.

After some thought, she decided to move out of her spacious, longtime home and into a smaller, seasonal cottage nearby that had belonged to her grandmother and then became her parents’ vacation home.

Furthermore, she decided to renovate the cottage, not only for herself, but also for her daughter, son-in-law, and their two young children, who would move into the house as well.

Now, three generations of this woman’s family live comfortably year-round in a 3,800-square-foot home—after renovations, the house is almost double the size it was as a cottage.

A father and son chat while moving into a new space.
Credit: Getty Images / monkeybusinessimages

Moving in with family is a life-changing decision that brings generations together.

Andrew Borgese, principal of Integrata Architecture & Construction, in Falmouth, launched a plan for design and construction and enlisted the help of interior designer Cathy Kert of nearby Bourne, Massachusetts. The pair designed an in-law apartment for the homeowner that gives her privacy, but also allows her to enjoy the rest of the first floor—the eat-in kitchen, living room and a den.

Kert says, “She can be social and with her family when she chooses to be, but also can close the door for privacy when she needs it. That space gives her independent living, privacy, and also gives her the opportunity to welcome her kids and grandchildren over.”

There’s a private door that leads from the outdoor shower into her bathroom, a full kitchen in an open-concept living space, and even a small office area.

“We wanted to get her the maximum living and storage space that we could in light of her doing a major downsize,” says Kert, whose certification in aging-in-place proved to be an asset.

A young girl hugs her grandfather.
Credit: Getty Images / Geber86

Families can live comfortably and independently under the same roof.

All of the first floor is accessible and includes three-foot-wide doors easily navigated by a walker or wheelchair, should this eventuality come to pass.

Preparing for the future also concerned Margaret Van Cott’s snowbird parents when they moved into an in-law apartment built expressly so they could live with their daughter and her family in Suffield, Connecticut, during the months when they’re not in Florida.

Van Cott says, “We had enough land to build onto our house.” She pulled the trigger 10 years ago when looking after and maintaining her parents’ home, nearly an hour away, got to be too much.

Now, the older couple occupies a 1,000-square-foot in-law apartment equipped with everything they need: a small kitchen and eating area, TV room, bedroom, bathroom with a curbless shower and a raised toilet, office, washer and dryer, and a screened-in three-season porch, all on one level.

“They don’t watch TV from their bed,” says Van Cott, “but we added cable into their bedroom in case they become bedridden down the road.”

Doorways are accessible. They also have parking and a private entrance in front and one in back off their porch.

Van Cott says, “We let them design it inside the way they wanted to.” She adds their main concern was the exterior of the house, where they wanted their own front door to remain the principal one.

“When you drive by you would never know that the addition is an in-law apartment.”

Similarly, when designing the in-law apartment in Falmouth, Borghese didn’t want it to look like an awkward appendage to the preserved front portion of the house.

A young girl and her grandmother chat.
Credit: Getty Images / FG Trade

Making in-law apartments accessible for walkers and wheelchairs makes the space easy to navigate.

These ideal scenarios—where two or more generations work together with mutual respect to live together in harmony—don’t paint the whole picture, however.

Deborah Del Negro, a senior real estate, retirement and downsizing specialist with Kinlin Grover on Cape Cod, says, “Most of the seniors I work with don’t want to bother their kids.”

On the Cape, the demand for in-law apartment-style housing far outstrips the current inventory.

“Right now, there are 38 properties on the entire Cape that are listed as having separate living quarters, but only nine identify as in-law apartments,” Del Negro explains. “This means they are strictly for someone related by blood or marriage to the homeowner.”

Instead, Del Negro offers this advice: “Be creative,” she says. “Section off a part of the house that you have and make modifications, or add onto it.”

But whatever you decide, she adds, it’s critical to check with your town regarding building regulations and ordinances. Every town is different.

Katie Clancy, realtor with The Cape House Team of William Raveis Real Estate on Cape Cod, says, “You have to look at everything. Look beyond listings that include separate living quarters. If something has finished space above the garage, this can be converted to a master suite, while elderly parents can have a first-floor bedroom suite in the main house.”

Even walk-out basement space can be remodeled very nicely, Clancy says, so don’t rule it out.

That’s the route Lynette McGrann is taking. She recently bought a brand-new 3-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom condo at Residences at Nemasket River in Lakeville, Massachusetts, with a plan to convert the walk-out basement into an in-law apartment for her 86-year-old parents.

Her contractor has made all the necessary electrical and plumbing modifications to the space, which has a staircase wide enough to accommodate a chairlift.

“They’re not in wheelchairs now,” says McGrann, “but they could be eventually.”

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