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Renovating the mother-in-law suite

By Annie Schwemmer and Ann Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, May 17 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Thinking of moms recently, this week we will discuss a mother-inspired renovation: the mother-in-law suite.

The number of multi-generational households is growing in the U.S. The Census Bureau says they were up 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, making nearly one in six households a multi-generational household. The family configurations range from three-generation families lovingly bringing in an aging parent to grandparents raising grandchildren or single adult children moving back in with mom and dad.

The economy has also impacted the demand for these types of renovations, either from needing to assist a struggling family member or from needing additional income for the core family. The term "mother-in-law suite" literally refers to co-housing involving a relative, as opposed to a general rental unit. This can be significant, depending on your zoning ordinances. Many municipalities zone neighborhoods as single-family residential, thereby making additional units illegal unless they are occupied by a member of the family. City planners often discourage the entire concept, as they know that once the apartment is created, it will often evolve into a general rental unit after the original occupant/family member has moved on.

A newer zoning concept is the "accessible dwelling unit," which actually encourages increasing the density of particular neighborhoods. This type of zoning allows the creation of a secondary residence even within an area zoned for single-family residences. Salt Lake City has recently passed such an ordinance, though neighborhood eligibility is determined by several mitigating factors such as proximity to public transportation.

That being said, today more people are interested in converting their unused space into income-producing properties to help cover mortgage costs, provide additional retirement income, help put children through school, etc. Check with your local municipality to understand what legal options are open to you.

The mother-in-law suite is basically an expanded guest room with living space, a private bathroom and small kitchenette. This type of space can vary in size but typically needs at least 400 square feet to accommodate the various needs. For comparison’s sake, most one-bedroom apartments are 500 to 700 square feet. Therefore, in designing the mother-in-law suite, allocating roughly 500 square feet will provide a comfortable space.

The location of the suite will in large part determine its usefulness. If the area is internal to the residence (meaning no separate outside entrance), its use will likely be restricted to family members. An outside entrance will make a truly independent unit possible. The unit can be located in a basement, though this will not lend itself to use by older family members or tenants, and the same can be said of upper-level units.

Depending on your home’s floor plan, a separate suite may be easier said than done. For homes with generous spaces that can be converted — like a garage, workshop or sun room — preparing your floor plan is simpler. This space needs to be large enough to include a small kitchen or kitchenette. You will also need an adjacent bedroom and bathroom you can easily connect to the unit’s main living space. Adding a stackable washer and dryer is another desirable feature.

When you are planning a suite for an aging relative, remember to use basic universal design elements. The suite should be on the main floor, avoiding stairs to get in or out. Doors should be wider than normal (36 inches will do) with lever handles instead of knobs. The idea of universal design is to accommodate a wheelchair if needed. The bathroom should have grab bars at the toilet and in the shower. A shower seat or bench is also a good idea in a universal design plan.

Especially if you have children still living at home, it is important to remember Mom’s need for peace and quiet when you are planning the in-home suite. Plan the room away from children’s bedrooms or playrooms in a tranquil and private part of the house. Within the suite, make space and lighting for tasks and hobbies like reading or painting. Consider adding a relaxing view of the backyard with picture windows to help make the space feel open and comfortable.

Treasure your time with your loved one, and remember that the time and expense it took to create the suite isn’t wasted, even if it’s only used a few short years. Enjoy the closeness you’ll have with your older loved one. The space will never go to waste, as it can always be repurposed down the road as a family room, second home office, or recreation room. Or keep it ready for that graduating senior as he or she boomerangs back home during the job hunt! It is way better than him taking back his old room, aka: your new home office.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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