All in the Family: Making a Multigenerational Household Work

6 min read
Sep 24, 2019

When Julie was in her 20's, she couldn’t have imagined living in the same town as her mother, let alone at the same address. But when Julie’s mom started contemplating a cross-country move to Oregon nearly a decade ago, it gave rise to the idea of living under one roof.

“My mom didn’t want to live in an apartment or condo, but she also didn’t want to worry about shoveling the driveway or dealing with yard work,” says Julie, 45. She and her husband, Shane, saw the benefits of all living together, with one condition: “We had to have our own space.”

A record 64 million Americans live under the same roof as their parents and adult children, according to the Pew Research Center. And demand for housing that works for extended family living is growing. An estimated 41% of Americans buying a home are interested in accommodating an older parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

These arrangements aren’t simply a last resort for families, but part of a growing trend that offers financial benefits, improved quality of life and other perks.

We started to see an increase in multigenerational households during the recession when families came together out of need, but now we’re seeing people living together by choice,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes intergenerational living.

We started to see an increase in multigenerational households during the recession when families came together out of need, but now we’re seeing people living together by choice.
Donna Butts
Executive Director of Generations United

Size up the benefits

For many families, the decision to combine households is one that hinges on many factors, the biggest one being financial. While the change often requires that families find a larger home, add on or renovate, the arrangement still often costs less than owning and maintaining two homes.

There is also something to be said for having more than two adults to help at home. Every family dynamic is different, but many multigenerational families save time and money by sharing the burden of household chores, meal preparation, errands, and childcare.

“When grandparents are younger, it’s immensely helpful for families to have that extra pair of loving hands at home to help get the kids to school or pick them up,” says Butts. “[And] as parents age, knowing they have people close to help care for them is a huge relief.”

Another key benefit of living with extended family? Finding time to spend together that would otherwise require making plans weeks in advance, driving across town or getting on an airplane. Those regular interactions can be associated with greater health and happiness.

How real families thrive

While finances weren't the main motivation for Julie and Shane, in the end, it did make it more feasible for them to upgrade from a townhouse to a large two-story home with an accessory dwelling unit for Julie’s mom. Together, they pay less for the single property than they would have for comparable spaces on their own. After factoring in property taxes, insurance, certain utilities, and other shared costs—the savings really added up.

Although Julie and Shane didn’t have kids until a year after their move, Julie’s mom was tremendously helpful during those baby years. “She was there to run errands and help out in so many ways,” says Julie. As their kids, now 4 and 7, got older, grandma’s place became a haven for doing crafts and reading books.

“My daughter’s reading is off the charts, and I’m sure it’s because the hours and hours that my mom has spent reading with her,” says Julie. “At the same time, my mom would definitely say she is mentally younger and physically stronger because of interacting with the kids.”

Every family dynamic is different, but many multigenerational families save time and money by sharing the burden of household chores, meal preparation, errands, and childcare.

Finding the right space

Despite all the potential perks, multigenerational living isn’t for everyone. "It's important to go in with your eyes wide open," says Butts.

Before families commit to living together, it’s a good idea to test the waters, perhaps by taking an extended vacation or making a temporary move to a rental home that can accommodate everyone.

As Julie and Shane recognized early, the best arrangements give adult children and parents their own living space. Julie’s mother has an apartment with her own kitchen, for example, but other families opt to share a kitchen and have separate space via a walk-out basement or large master suite.

Be frank about finances

In deciding to live together, families are also co-mingling some aspects of their finances. Talking about money upfront is a key step for success. “We always suggest sitting down and talking about your individual expectations,” says Butts.

With some families, the adult children may pay for all of the costs associated with buying a house but ask their parents to pay monthly rent. In other cases, the older generation might pay for a large portion of the down payment or any remodeling costs, while the adult children cover the mortgage payments.

There's no single formula for the best way to divide costs, so find one that works for you. The most important thing is to have the conversation early. It's also important to address how to divvy up other shared costs, such as groceries, maintenance or repairs.

Enjoy your time together — and apart

As with any kind of co-living — be it with roommates, a partner or your parents — communication is essential. This is true not just for tangible topics, such as finances and chores, but in talking about when you’ll spend time together and when you’ll give each other space.

“It’s important to talk about what you envision living together to look like,” explains Butts, who recommends going through a typical day or typical week and talking through such things as caregiving, childcare, meals and social events.

In Julie’s case, there is no expectation that everyone will have dinner together every night, but there is an “open-door policy” when it comes to going back and forth between the main house and the apartment. To help make sure everyone is on the same page, the family shares an online calendar. “This has been so helpful in keeping track of all the logistics that come up, especially with young kids,” Julie says.

While living with a parent can sometimes stir up challenges, couples also need to acknowledge the stress that sometimes comes with living with in-laws. “When it’s your own parent, there is a balance between making sure your spouse is happy with everything,” Julie says. Again, it’s all about having the right space, literally and figuratively.

Looking back, Julie says she can’t imagine not living in such close proximity to her mother. The experience, she says, has been tremendously enriching for all three generations, but there is one benefit that tops the list. “The relationship my mom has with my kids is priceless,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Nothing in these materials is intended to be advice for a particular situation or individual. These materials are for general information purposes only.