An only child, I’ve always been exceptionally close to my mom. After I got married, moved to the other side of the country and had twin daughters, she packed up her own life and relocated to a house a few doors down from mine.
That’s not to say we’re alike in every way. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I’m an exercise junkie, and my mom’s answer to staying fit is to avoid carbs. My husband and I are in the MSNBC camp, while my mom tunes into Fox News.
And one of her prize possessions is her Hummel collection—German figurines that she claims are “worth a fortune.” If they turned up in my cabinet, I’d probably use them for claymation wars.
Despite these minor differences, there was a constant flow of traffic—my kids, dog, clothes that needed to be ironed—between our houses when we lived in the same neighborhood. It was the ideal setup, close but still separate.
But when my husband and I started talking about moving to a bigger house a couple of years ago, we began taking a longer view. Soon the kids would be going to college, we reasoned, and while my now 71-year-old mom is healthy and independent, at some point she might need some help.
All of this led us to a decision to join the more than 60 million Americans who live in multi-generational households.
After decades of declines, such living arrangements have been on the rise, according to Pew Research Center, which defines this trend as two or more adult generations living together. Today, a record 64 million Americans, or 20% of the population, live in multi-gen homes.
Given the popularity, it’s clear that many parents, like mine, see multiple benefits—financial, practical and emotional—to living under the same roof as their adult children.
But from experience, I know that a successful arrangement requires the right balance of boundaries and open communication, talking through key details up front, and recognizing that emotional clashes will come up.
“This has to be the right fit for the whole family,” says Brent Weiss, certified financial planner, co-founder and head of planning at Facet Wealth in Baltimore, Md.
If you’re thinking of going this route, the answers to these five questions can give you a sense of how well it might work for you and your kids.
Have you tested the waters?
My mom and I had a pretty good idea of what shacking up would be like. We travel together regularly, and had even lived together between various moves. And living in the same neighborhood for years had given us a window into how our habits and preferences would mash or clash.
Chances are, though, that you probably haven’t lived under the same roof as your kid in decades. So test the waters with an extended vacation together in close quarters or, better yet, by renting a house together.
Thankfully, my mother is laid back about most things—except her hot tub, which we must remember to always cover after using—and she never offers unsolicited parental or marital advice.
Do you have the right set-up?
You might long to be closer to your kids. But physically, at least, you’re better off keeping just a little bit of distance.
We got lucky. After just a couple weeks of house hunting, we found a hillside house that had exactly the space my family needed on one level, plus an 850 square-foot unfinished lower level with direct access from the garage, lots of windows and an extra-large sliding glass door to a patio and garden area.
Because the space was a shell, my mom was able to design it exactly to her liking. And we added practical features for aging in place, such as wide doors, single-level layout and low-lip shower.
Granted, not every real estate market or situation lends itself to carving out distinct living spaces, but some separation, even if it’s a bedroom and a bathroom, is key.
Who will own the home?
Our primary motivation was convenience, but the deal made a lot of sense financially, for all of us. My mother, who retired from a career in nursing last spring, put the proceeds from selling her house toward paying a portion of the down payment on the new house, and remodeling and designing her space.
In the process, she effectively prepaid her living expenses, making the task of managing retirement income easy.
My husband and I pay the mortgage, insurance, taxes and utilities—but thanks to my mom’s contribution to the down payment, we got a bigger house with only a negligible increase to our living costs.
Every situation is different, of course. Some parents pay rent, for example, while others put up the cash for the house and have their adult kids make mortgage payments to them.
Whichever route you take, try to keep it simple, says Joyce Petrenchak, a wealth strategist with PNC Wealth Management. She suggests having your kids’ names—not yours—on the title and mortgage. That can save on estate planning headaches down the road.
And make sure to document the terms of the initial agreement, outline expectations of ownership, and spell out what happens if you decide to part ways or sell the house.
How does the rest of the family feel?
Being an only child helped me avert issues of fairness and resentment that sometimes crop up when siblings are involved. All I needed was buy-in from my husband, Kevin, and my now-16-year-old daughters.
But not all families have it so easy. Siblings might appreciate, or resent, the closeness that your co-habitation brings. And certainly, the arrangement can complicate estate planning, especially if the parents have joint ownership of the house or have contributed to the down payment.
“From an estate planning perspective, you need to have a conversation with everyone about what happens when you pass away,” says Weiss.
What are the terms of the deal?
After you work out the big details, talk about everyday practicalities, such as how you divvy up other expenses (i.e. groceries, if you share a kitchen) and household chores. And be sure to discuss occasional events like parties or houseguests.
If you have grandkids, clarify the expectations around babysitting and discipline. Are you willing to be a regular caretaker for Saturday date night? If a child is acting out, are you allowed to step in?
Finally, as with any relationship, you’ll need to revisit your expectations and boundaries. And know that you’ll drive each other nuts at times.
This weekend, for example, while I was in the final minutes of a grueling 60-minute spin workout on my Peloton, my mom decided it was a great time to fry bacon. It’s a good thing her Hummel figurines are locked away safely in her cabinet.
And yet, even though being in each other’s lives every day drums up its annoyances—I could say the same about my husband and my kids—I have no doubt that combining our households was the best move, practically, financially, and for our family.