Before World War II, several generations living together under one roof was nothing out of the ordinary. Today, there's a lot of talk about adult children returning home to live with their parents because of the economy, but there's another trend afoot that hearkens back to that earlier era.
As baby boomers grow older and modern medicine keeps folks living longer, many families are renovating their homes to accommodate aging parents.
"My mother and husband joked with me forever about adding on a wing to our last house so she could come and live with us, so we could take care of her when she got older," says Ellen McDonald. "I was like, ‘Ha ha, that's pretty funny!' I was so excited to move out of my house as a young adult. The last thing I wanted to do was live with a parent again."
However, in 2010, mother and daughter (and husband) decided to buy a house together in the West End. Every day, the two drove by an intriguing house that they both liked, and on a whim, they stopped to take a look at it. "It was perfect," McDonald says. "It had everything on all of our punch lists."
At the time, she says, "there was no need for us to move in together, but I knew down the road I would want my mother close if anything were to happen to her. The situation presented itself, and we couldn't pass it up."
McDonald and her mother, Ann Butler, were lucky to find a home that could easily be renovated to suit their needs. Creating privacy is important. Charlie Shade, of C.L. Shade Drafting, says, "Clients ask for a separate entrance, a separate little porch. … They say, ‘We want mom and dad to have the opportunity to get away from us and for us to get away from them. We want our parents to come and go as they please.'''
"We [wanted to] live under the same roof but live our lives like we always have, without infringing upon each other's lifestyle," McDonald says.
Although privacy might be the most important consideration when renovating, there are other key questions you need to ask yourself before you buy a house or call the contractor.
"Do I have first-floor living space? Are stairs an issue? Do we need to think about a wheelchair in the future?" Shade says. "How do we get it into the house to begin with — do we need a ramp? Are the bathrooms the right size?"
Bathrooms are particularly important to think about. According to Shade, before the 1980s, smaller bathrooms were the norm. In a city like Richmond that's full of old homes, you need to make sure there's room to expand the bathroom to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.
You also need to focus on doorways, Shade says. "You need wider doors. You may not necessarily need a wider hallway. If you make the doorway wider, a wheelchair is able to turn from a typical 3-foot hallway into a room, [and that] makes the difference. You're changing just the door instead of reinventing thewhole house."
Zoning laws are tricky to navigate, however. "In most local jurisdictions, there is very tough enforcement of the zoning code that limits such things that are built or renovated in single-family zoned neighborhoods," says Mason Hearn, of HomeMasons Inc.
"You see it in garages [a lot]. People want to put in an apartment over their garage, and [inspectors] start to think you're creating a rental space," Shade says.
According to William "Chuck" Davidson, the city's zoning administrator, separate living spaces with separate entrances are considered on a case-by-case basis and require Richmond City Council approval.
Hearn says, "We have been whacked on permits for proposing a closet in a bonus room ‘because then it might be used as an apartment' — or especially putting any sort of refrigeration or built-in cooking appliances or even electric lines appropriate for the future installation of such things."
An attempt to build anything resembling a kitchen sends up a red flag to officials. "You cannot have a kitchen," says Shade. "In all localities, you can have a glorified bar. You cannot do an oven or cooktop. As soon as they see that, they start looking at it as multifamily, not multigenerational."
"Basically," says Davidson, "a single-family home is one family. It has one kitchen. [The whole family] shares the entire house."
Even a full-sized refrigerator can get you into trouble. Under-the-counter refrigeration will pass inspection or a smaller fridge. Dishwashers, though, are out of the question.
The process of obtaining a special-use permit — one that allows a house zoned for a single family to be renovated to accommodate a separate, nonrental living space — can be laborious and costly. The fees can exceed $1,000. "City Council can amend the current code how they want to," says Davidson. But first you have to submit your application to the Land Use Commission. From there, he says, "It will go to different agencies [for more review]," including the Zoning Board of Appeals. In the end, your request for a special-use permit goes before Council for a decision.
Homeowners who decide to forgo the process do so at their own risk. "Ten or 12 years ago, building officials knew when we were accommodating such things and let it go with a wink and a nod, but no more," Hearn says.
Nonetheless, for many, the positives far outweigh the negatives — no matter how many headaches they might create. "The biggest benefit for all of us is peace of mind," McDonald says. "I know and Mother knows that if anything were to happen, we're only a staircase away from each other."
A hidden benefit, one earlier generations took for granted and that we've perhaps overlooked, is the less tangible but valuable sense of family that living together engenders.
"Most importantly, my daughter gets a chance to see her Gaga every day if she wants," says McDonald, "and if I ever need a hug, a shoulder to cry on, need to gossip or vent about mama drama, my mother is always there for me and my entire family."