Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

A few years ago, we made the choice to move, together with my husband’s parents, into one large, shared house.

We sold a three bedroom, one bath home; my in-laws sold their own similarly sized three bedroom house.

They contributed to the down payment on the new place and paid to remodel their portion. This included adding interior walls and a second kitchen for their exclusive use to create a true in-law apartment. They have an exterior door that leads from the driveway to their space, three bedrooms, a living room, and two bathrooms, all their own.

We share a short hallway from the garage, basement and garage space, and the yard itself, though we agreed upon one patio area for their outdoor furniture and primary use. Our main entrance is the original front door, so none of our guests pass through the other’s private spaces.

It’s not a rentable second residence (we share utilities, for example), but we don’t have to share cooking space, bathrooms, or exterior entryways. We can open interior doors to see each other, but we can also close them for privacy.

We took on a mortgage of a similar size to what we would have spent moving alone into a larger home. Sharing a 35 sq ft (a little over 3 m2) bathroom—with a bad layout, asbestos panel walls requiring professional abatement, degraded brass plumbing, and a cast iron tub in dire need of refinishing or replacement—with three males had become a daily nuisance, and I was demanding an upgrade one way or another.

I’ve had people commend me for being “willing to allow” my husband’s parents to move in with us, but it was actually my idea. DH is very close to his parents. He took virtually no convincing, though he was concerned about how I would respond to living together. My rationale for entering into this arrangement—unconventional in 21st century Western society, but “traditional” when considering human history—was multi-faceted.

First, my husband is an only child, and care of his parents is his sole responsibility. If or when, in the future, they need more assistance, he is duty-bound to provide it, and I wouldn’t wish for him to behave any differently. My hope was to create a comfortable home in which we could all co-exist peacefully before circumstances forced the issue.

How much better is it to move joyfully forward into a great new house we’ve picked out together than to cram an ailing or recently widowed elder into a house that’s ill suited for aging in place? We were barely squeezing our family of four into our old place. Any sudden addition to the household would have been difficult, maybe impossible, if infirmity had been the motivation for the change!

I grew up with my maternal grandfather sharing our home. He joined our household when I was a preschooler, after he had been a widower for a few years. I’m sure my decision to expand our household beyond our nuclear family was made easier by the experience growing up with Grandpa just another familiar daily presence. He had health issues and spent most of his time in his room listening to classical music, but he was there, and he was just part of the family.

Besides these more emotional reasons for expanding the scope of our family home, I must admit that I also believe in the sensibility, and sustainability, of the modern co-housing movement. There are economies to be gained by living in groups, even small ones.

I loved the idea of buying a unit in a co-housing community, but had never made headway convincing DH it was a good idea. Sharing a household with my in-laws does put some of my environmental principles into action.

For example, a periodic energy usage report from the local utility says we use 25% more energy than neighboring households. That bothered me until I remembered that our one home replaced two. Also, three members of our six person combined family are home (consuming power and keeping the heat or air conditioning at comfortable levels) for most of every day. A mere 25% above average is actually an energy savings win.

It was hardest to coax my father-in-law (FIL) into the arrangement. DH’s mother (MIL) would have moved into our old (detached, unheated) garage without complaint if she thought it would serve the family. She’s also generationally and culturally inculcated to go along with her husband’s financial decisions. Aside from making clear that she didn’t want to live in a basement, MIL was on board with the co-housing idea from the moment she heard it.

FIL felt differently. He still works, and he’s fit and active. The first time we broached the subject, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be assumed as our “responsibility.” I think he appreciated the fact that we were expressing care and concern for their future, but he was not ready to “move into his son’s house.”

An alarming health scare a couple of years later, which, happily, turned out to be a false alarm, brought FIL around to our plan. I believe he acted then out of concern for his wife. What if something had happened to him? What would happen to MIL? As soon as FIL expressed a tentative interest in the idea of moving in together, I called a realtor and began readying our place for sale.

We were able to buy a much larger home in an ideal neighborhood by combining the value of two properties. Neither household was compromising or downgrading comfort, space, or property values in the move. We have enough room that no one is on top of each another. We had plenty of options at this higher end of the market to find houses that were easily adapted to multi-generational living.

Another really important point to my story is that FIL and MIL really weren’t “giving up” on independence and “moving in with” their son. We gain at least as much by having them living downstairs as they get from us!

MIL is the traditional Jewish grandmother in one obvious way: she always wants to feed her loved ones. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may recall that I’m a reluctant cook. The boys get nutritious, home cooked dinners four nights a week with their grandparents. I get to skip cooking four nights every week during the time of day that my energy is lowest. I’m very content to dine alone on leftovers while the boys enjoy vegetable soup and котлеты and lots of doting attention.

Also, I get an hour to myself to recharge my (introverted) emotional batteries after spending all day with DS1, who learns at home. My husband deserves to be greeted, after a long day at work, by my best self, and he’s more likely to get her if I’ve had a chance to take a break. I’d like to be an eternally happy housewife, but I’m simply not without regular intervals of peace and quiet.

And speaking of the home school scholar (DS1), FIL is a great help with that process. He is not just willing, but eager, to tutor his grandson in math, history, computer science, and the Russian language. MIL, who was a concert pianist, accompanies DS1 while he practices his violin. Their experience and wisdom definitely enhances DS1’s education.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the social consequences of the in-laws moving in with the “kids.” I think FIL was a little worried that their friends would judge them for making this change. After supporting himself and his family for decades, would it seem like they were financially needy, even derelict? Instead, attitudes seem to be quite the opposite. If little birds can be believed, many friends feel rather jealous.

“Your daughter-in-law asked you to move in with them?!?”

What better proof that you are valued, loved, and that your presence is appreciated?

One thought on “Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

  1. Multi generational living truly is a “really wonderful thing”. Mom has lived with us since ’08 and has been able to watch firsthand her grandsons grow into men. Now she gets to watch her great granddaughter Poppy. I remember your grandpa. Specifically his kind eyes. Wonderful blog … Keep it up.

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