Where will you spend your golden years? If you get along with your children, sharing a life and a house together can be richly rewarding, and it’s more common than you might think.

That’s what Builder Magazine’s research team learned when they interviewed 8 multigeneration families in three different housing markets. Though a sample of this size is hardly definitive, MarketScape Research & Consulting’s (MSRC) findings challenge conventional notions of what constitutes a multigenerational household, and why they are living together. Most of us assume that this happens only when an older parent can no longer live independently. But the San Diego firm found that generations of a family decide to live together for many other reasons, often when the grandparents are still relatively young. 

Builder commissioned the study as background information for its Multi-Generation Reality House. This demonstration project was designed by the Memphis architectural firm Looney, Ricks, Kiss, and it is currently under construction. About 10,000 home builders will see it at next year’s International Builders Show in Orlando.

The research team, led by Barbara Nagle and Doris Payne, found their interview subjects by making cold telephone calls in San Diego, Las Vegas and Orlando. The only criterion for selection was that the families be multigenerational.

During the interviews, Payne and Nagle not only heard their subjects describe their lives and the things they liked and hated about their houses. The researchers also saw them. Unlike most home-builder-sponsored focus groups that meet for about two hours in a neutral setting, these interviews took place in the subjects’ homes, and the meandering discussions went on for as long as four hours.

The eight households ranged in size from three members to six or seven. Though one great-grandparent was in his 80s and one younger grandmother was in her 50s, most were in their late 60s and led independent lives. They were still driving and some were even employed full time. One family was Mexican, one Italian and one was Filipino, but the researchers concluded that ethnicity by itself did not explain their findings. 

In household make-up, these families covered a surprisingly wide range. One had four generations – a small child, a couple, the wife’s mother and the wife’s grandfather. Another included a couple with a 5-year-old plus the wife’s brother and sister and her mother. There were no instances of “boomerang” kids moving back home after college because they didn’t earn enough money to live on their own, or divorced adult children moving back in with their kids. 

The reasons for the families living together were as varied as the families themselves. The grandmother in her late 50’s moved in to look after her grandchildren because she was unhappy with their being in day care. In another case, the generations joined forces because in pooling resources, they could live in a bigger and more comfortable house. A widowed grandmother wanted to live with her child and grandchild.In one case the living situation was regarded as temporary. The grandparents who had recently immigrated from Mexico wanted to live with their child while they become acculturated to living in America.

Of the eight households, only one had the conventional housing solution for multigenerational families – a separate apartment with a kitchenette for the grandmother who kept her own schedule and fixed her own meals. In the rest of the households, the grandparents participated in household activities, in some cases doing all the cooking and cleaning or looking after younger children when their parents were not there. The great-grandfather walked his granddaughter to school everyday. The recent arrivals from Mexico looked after grandchildren and the house during the day; at night they attended school to learn English.

As the eight families described how they lived in their houses, some things were not so different from most households. They tended to congregate in the area around the kitchen, sharing activities or simply enjoying the company of others while reading, watching television, preparing a meal or doing homework. Ancillary spaces – nooks for computer work or a breakfast table where a child doing homework could spread out without getting in the way – were considered a plus.

These households complained about the same things as other households, especially storage. There wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t where they needed it. A place for oversized holiday cooking equipment didn’t have to be accessible, but everyone wanted storage space in the kitchen or an adjacent laundry room for bulk purchases of household goods like an 18-roll package of paper towels and six gallons of liquid dish detergent. Many of the households had pets and needed both a place to store an open 40-pound bag of dry dog food and a place to feed the dog that wasn’t in the middle of everything. The households also needed more general storage – with more adults, they had more stuff.

Some aspects of multigenerational household living were different, however. Privacy was a big issue. The single most often expressed desire space-wise, was a “private oasis” – a place where a family member could be alone or entertain friends that was not a bedroom, Nagle said. The room did not have to be exclusive; it just had to be private. One teenager, for example, used a study at the front of the house to hang out with her friends. The same space was also used for overnight guests. In another instance, the living room was a quiet, private space, which also doubled as a computer workstation.

Along with wanting their own private space, the family members also respected others’ need for privacy, Payne said, adding that several grandparents said that it was important not to be intrusive and to give the couple and the grandchildren the opportunity and place to be alone.  

Some issues were specific to having an older member in the household, for example acoustics. In some families, the older grandparent was hard of hearing and turned up the volume on the television, to the distraction of other family members. Some children complained about sharing a bathroom with a grandparent who tended to take “forever” in the morning when they were trying to get ready for school.

Another issue was handicapped access and the need for at least one accessible entrance into the house. None of the grandparents in this group was handicapped, but some of them could not negotiate stairs. The necessity of a first-floor bedroom did not come up because getting up to the second floor was not yet an issue in the houses where the grandparent’s room was on the second floor, Payne said.

Accessible entrances to exterior household spaces, including both porches and patios, was also important because even one step was enough to discourage some of the grandparents from going outside when no one else was at home to offer assistance, Payne said. As to where an outdoor porch or patio might be located, she found that the families wanted them on the side or the back of the house because those locations afforded more privacy than one on the front.

When it came to home offices, this group has needs that have been overlooked by architects and home builders alike. The office needs were not related to being a multigenerational household but to the type of businesses they were running. There was one couple who used bedrooms as home offices, but the majority of the home-based businesses run by these families were not “white-collar knowledge-based,” Nagle said. They had space and storage needs that extended far beyond a computer workstation and bookshelves. For example, one family ran a lawn maintenance service and filled its garage with lawn mowers and other lawn equipment. Another family had two businesses – a grandfather ran a business filling candy vending machines and needed storage for the candy while his daughter ran a daycare business, looking after other children in the neighborhood. There was an Amway distributor, a candle maker, and a T-shirt distributor who needed both ample storage and big worktables.

Though Nagle and Payne both said that they were not eliciting specific “design directives,” many useful inferences can be gleaned from their findings. We’ll find out what the architects made of their research when Builder’s RealityHouse is finished and open to the public next January.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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