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Which Way Home?

More Americans opting for multigenerational housing

Tara Siegel Bernard Nov 8, 2011
Which Way Home?

More Americans opting for multigenerational housing

Tara Siegel Bernard Nov 8, 2011

Tess Vigeland: One of the changes we’re seeing in home ownership out of the financial crisis is the return of multiple generations under one roof. The Pew Research Center says a record 49 million Americans live in this arrangement, up from 42 million in 2000.

New York Times reporter Tara Siegel Bernard visited one family in Raleigh, N.C. to see how it plays in their American Dream.

Wanda Urbanska: Hello!

Tara Siegel Bernard: Hi, are you Wanda?

Urbanska: I am!

Siegel Bernard: Nice to meet you.

Urbanska: Nice to meet you, Tara. Come on in.

Siegel Bernard: Wanda Urbanska is a 55-year-old single mother who works as a media consultant and author. Last year, Wanda went to Poland to reconnect with her cousins and to finish a writing project. But that meant she’d have to leave behind her elderly mother, Marie Whittaker. Marie was 89 years old and lived alone.

Wanda Urbanska: I was concerned about leaving mom. ‘Cause she was…

Marie Whittaker: Old.

Wanda: Yeah, whatever age she was. Anyway, when I got back, I felt like, “You know what? It’s time for a change.”

A big change. She and her mom decided to buy a new home together.

Wanda: I had people tell me, “Bad idea. Don’t move in with your mom,” you know. “What if your mother gets very difficult? What if she gets into some really serious health problems? It’s just not a smart thing to do.” It’s sort of against the cultural norm, I think, right now. But I think the cultural norm is shifting.

Wanda and Marie found a three-bedroom house for $370,000 in Raleigh.

Wanda: It wouldn’t have been possible for either of us to purchase this property without pooling the resources. We each put $60,000 down.

Now they’re the proud owners of a gray clapboard house with blue shutters and a front porch. But one of the best features of the home is the small cottage in the backyard. It has a two-bedroom apartment, where Marie lives.

Wanda: So this is really nice. I can just dash outside, down these stairs.

Knocks on door

Wanda: Hello? Mama?

Wanda and Marie looked at about five homes. But it didn’t take long for them to decide this house had the perfect setup.

Wanda: You know we love each other, but probably shouldn’t be around 24/7. One issue we’ve sometimes had is mother used to be in control, and she now feels that I’m in control, which is true. And so there’s sometimes little power struggles.

But they do spend quite a bit of quality time together. Wanda and Marie go swimming on some mornings, and they sit down every night for dinner with Wanda’s 14-year-old son, Henry.

Marie: We do have a meal at the table, and I have heard that many families do not. And so we still have this ritual.

Henry: It certainly helps conversation-wise to have more than two people because, you know, I couldn’t chime in with witty remarks if there’s no one actually having a conversation.

As a single mom, the arrangement also takes some of the financial pressure off of Wanda. The two women divide the household expenses.

Wanda: We split our bills, we split our mortgage payment. It’s something like $860 a month each.

Wanda and Marie rarely disagree about financial matters. They’re generous with one another and they have similar philosophies about money.

Marie: I’m not a spender. I very rarely buy anything. You know, stores hate me.

But they don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to cleaning and clutter.

Marie: She cooks. I don’t.

Wanda: She doesn’t even clean up! But she does carry her plate out to the kitchen.

Henry does his part too. He gets a weekly allowance of $15, but he works for it. Among other things, he cuts the grass, folds laundry and provides tech support for his grandmother.

Henry: I go back there occasionally — only to make coffee or to teach her how to use her computer.

So how does a 14-year-old like living with his mother and his octogenarian granny?

Henry: We don’t always understand each other. My hair is blue.

Wanda: Sometimes mother is more blunt and outspoken.

Marie: Well, I think both of us accept each other as we are. And I tell her, “You know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! Lay off!”

Since Wanda and Marie’s home included the small cottage when they bought it, they didn’t need to deal with any zoning laws. Not all communities allow second units. But experts say more cities and towns are beginning to.

Michael Litchfield has written a book about turning one house into two homes. It’s called “In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats.”

Michael Litchfield: If you’re thinking about creating an in-law unit, I think it’s a good idea from the get-go to find out whether your town welcomes ’em or not. Once you start doing certain things like adding a kitchen, then it has the potential to become a second dwelling — and zoning does have opinions about that.

If you do get past all of the zoning rules, Wanda Urbanska says there can be many advantages to moving in with your family.

Wanda: It’s a smart arrangement, financially, and in other ways. But I think both parties have to come in with open eyes. I think people have in our country have been sort of more afraid of what they were going to lose — you know, like freedom, independence — rather than looking at the benefits to being close to an elderly parent in their final years.

Siegel Bernard: And Marie, what sort of advice would you give to other families who are considering moving in together?

Marie: You have to be open to change. And it’s difficult, but it’s very rewarding. It’s much better than being alone with a cat, nice as cats are.

In Raleigh, N.C., I’m Tara Siegel Bernard for Marketplace Money.

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