Multigenerational housing has become both a blast from the past and a forward-thinking trend thanks to the invention of the "granny pod," a free-standing home for grandparents that goes in the backyard. But before you ask the in-laws to move in, here's a look at the perks—and potential drawbacks—for parents.

By Karen Dybis
January 31, 2020
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The longtime tradition of grandparents moving in with their adult kids—typically by renovating a spare bedroom or basement into an in-law suite—is one that's been around for centuries. Nowadays, however? Parents and grandparents are more likely to share a lot more than a roof. And experts say the trend is likely to continue, giving families fresh ways to create respectful boundaries—as long as everyone stays on their side of the wall.

The original "granny pod," also known as the MEDCottage, is an independent home-health unit designed to accommodate seniors with specific health needs. These living spaces, meant for extended care or short-term rehab stays, come in a variety of formats from an RV platform to a garage retrofit to an independent housing kit that families set up on site, like in a backyard. Prices range up to $125,000.

But thanks to innovative homebuilders and entrepreneurs, now parents seeking to cohabitate with extended families for reasons beyond health can create households with two or even three generations living on the same lot by investing in a self-contained living area. For example, Colorado-based real estate company Lennar is developing SuperHomes, described as "offering the best in both privacy and connectivity." The goal is to create homes that both "accommodate the family you're raising and the family that raised you," the company's website explains. These homes within a home have a separate entrance onto a suite of sorts, featuring a kitchenette and large living space for family or guests.

Sound enticing? If you are a parent in today's hectic world, it likely does. A few months after our second child was born—approximately two years after our son turned our lives upside down—my husband and I decided that we truly did believe that raising a child, or in this case two highly energetic kids, took a village. That is when we started looking at what was known then as a mother-in-law suite, or an extra bedroom in our home for the grandparents to stay with us long-term or move in permanently.

In fact, the months that my parents stayed with us when both kids were first born, and more recently after my husband had major surgery, were among the fondest memories I have of being a parent. Making large dinners together, sharing the carpool responsibilities, and equally helping out with homework took what seemed like a crazy life and calmed it considerably.

Megan Gunnell, LMSW, a Michigan-based psychotherapist and mother of two, understands. Not so long ago it was common to spend more time with or even live with grandparents or extended family, says Gunnell. Then the American dream seemed to shift into radical independence, creating the goal of independent housing for each nuclear family and consequently time spent with relatives decreased.

"Many families are feeling overextended trying to manage the extreme demands of work and parenthood. Having supportive family nearby to assist with meal prep, childcare, homework help, and transportation needs, for example, can alleviate stress for parents and kids," says Gunnell. "But the real added benefit comes from the importance of having more loving, attentive, and engaged adults in a child's life."

Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick

The number of Americans living in multigenerational households has grown. In 2016, a record 64 million people, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Pew defines a "multigenerational household" as one that includes two or more adult generations.

For my family, uniting our households never worked. My parents wanted a different kind of independence, and my mother-in-law needed more care because of a disability. Today, both live about 45 minutes away from our home. They help out as they can, but neither chose to live with us or in our postage stamp-sized backyard—which probably would have been unlikely to happen even if they wanted to because of strict local zoning laws about recreational vehicles, tiny homes, or the like.

But maybe that's a good thing. Having your family on-site will have an impact on your family dynamic. That's why it's important to clarify assumptions and expectations of both parties at the start, says Gunnell. Having family close can be a richly rewarding experience for everyone involved, Gunnell explains, but only if people keep conversations open and honest and maintain clear boundaries and expectations.

"Managing boundaries and privacy, agreeing on what feels mutually respectful with regards to time spent together and time spent apart would be important conversations to have when considering this option," says Gunnell.

Take Matthew Gray and Judy Doyle as an example. The mother and son are building two separate homes connected by a courtyard on the same lot in Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood. Together, Gray and Doyle will split about 3,000 square feet of housing between them; 2,000 for Gray and his husband, and about 900 square feet for her space. Both homes will have huge windows, high-end kitchens, lots of storage, and, most importantly, their own entrances.

"It really is a win for everybody," says Gray, who works in purchasing for a large Metro Detroit automotive manufacturer. "My mom is a spry 72-year-old who, when she was coming out of her second marriage, needed a place to stay, so she moved in with us in our guest bedroom. The three of us can live together, but we really need separate kitchens. That's when we really solidified the idea of doing a multigenerational home."

Gunnell says having conversations around how these multigenerational living arrangements work is key to their success. Something as simple as "Do we knock or text before coming into each other's dwelling?" could help bridge an understanding of what's expected before one party or another starts to brew resentment or feels like their privacy is being violated. Other things—like whose rules apply?—could become challenging when parents try to uphold a way of doing things that differs from what grandparents did in their time.

Statements such as "That's not the way we did things when you were little" could quickly cause spite or irritation to flare up, says Gunnell.

"Clear communication is key to making this merger successful," she says. "Grandparents also want to feel like their contributions are of high value and not considered the default child care provider. Setting up a schedule and maintaining routine for all parties is also important to creating stability for children, too. If it's determined that Tuesday night is grandma night, for example, then all parties are clear on who's in charge when."

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