Buying and Renting a Home

The Growth of Multigenerational Homes

The trend of multigenerational families living together under one roof is growing. How—and why—does it work so well for some?

A few years back, Amy Goyer, family and caregiving expert with the AARP, was living with her father, one of her sisters and her two nephews under one roof. Her father suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and Goyer said that having him live with her helped alleviate some of her worry about how he was doing. "It was much less stressful because I was on top of and coordinated his care," she said.

Goyer is far from alone when it comes to multigenerational living. Whether it's to help an aging parent or for some other reason, multigenerational homes are growing in popularity. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 64 million people—about 20% of the U.S. population—lived with multiple generations under one roof in 2016. If the convention has been to grow up, move out of your parents' home and create your own life, why are so many families doing just the opposite these days?

Multigenerational homes: A timeline

Having multigenerational families living together may seem like a new trend, but the living arrangement has a long history in America. According to Pew data, the multigenerational-living model first took a nosedive after World War II. The number of people living in this type of situation dropped to 21% in 1950 from 25% a decade earlier. This trend continued until 1980, when the share of the population living in multigenerational homes bottomed out at 12%. A number of factors likely led to this shift, including a decline in immigration (more on why that matters later) and a rise in both health and wealth for people who were 65 and older.

Since the lowest dip in 1980, though, multigenerational living has been slowly on the rise, and the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 helped. By 2009, 51.5 million (or 17%) of Americans lived in multigenerational households again, and the number has continued to go up since.

Why multigenerational living is making a comeback

It's no surprise that the U.S. saw an uptick in multigenerational living as a result of the Great Recession, when living with multiple people under one roof provided certain economic advantages, but there are other trends that have caused this increase. Immigration is one. Two groups who comprise more than 50% of immigrants living in the United States today, Hispanics and Asians, are more likely to live in multigenerational homes than white families, at a rate of 22% and 25%, respectively, compared to 13% for whites. "Especially among Hispanic families, it's much more common for it to be a given that households will live multigenerationally," said Goyer. "We also have the issue of the 'boomerang' kid and the idea that kids are emerging into adulthood at a much older age. They're turning 30 before they're fully independent."

Goyer also points out that the cost of care for both children and the elderly continue to increase, making moving in together a money-saving decision. "There's an increase in caregiving for older parents," she added. "As baby boomers are aging, that's going to continue to grow an older population that needs help, and moving in together can help provide that care."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the rising cost of child care likely has something to do with this shift as well. "It's not just single adults choosing to live with the parents longer—it's more common now to be married with kids and living with your parents, so there are three generations in the same household," said Patrick Doherty, certified financial planner with Reby Advisors. "It cuts costs and adds support. When grandparents can watch the kids—especially in a household with two working parents—sometimes they can cut out the cost of child care or make it more manageable. This also enables the parents to focus on their careers, if needed, because they have additional support."

The pros and cons of multigenerational homes

For Lisa M. Cini, president and founder of Mosaic Design Studio and author of "Hive: The Simple Guide to Multigenerational Living," it was the lack of privacy that she found hardest to handle as a multigenerational family. "I think one of the most difficult things for me is that I am an introvert, and when I got home, my mom, being an extrovert, would want to chat and ask me all kinds of questions," said Cini. "To me, it felt like I was 15 again and I was under an FBI investigation."

The lack of privacy got so bad that at one point, Cini said she started sneaking into her own house to get to her bedroom before her mom would know she was home. "I needed time to rejuvenate from having to talk to people all day and be on," she said. "I finally had to tell her that I needed an hour or so to get my mojo back before we chatted." Although the conversation was difficult, Cini's mom ultimately understood, and Cini no longer felt the need to sneak into her own house. Instead, Saturday mornings became their "catch-up" time, where they had coffee and chatted together on the front porch swing. "We created some wonderful memories this way and grew closer."

As a family and caregiving expert, Goyer said the kitchen is where she often hears about the most conflicts in multigenerational homes. In fact, "having other people use my kitchen has been one of the hardest things," she admitted. One woman confided to Goyer that she would get frustrated because her mother had recently moved in and could not stop telling her how to make her sandwiches for her children as she packed their lunches in the morning. "It drove her insane," said Goyer.

But personal space complaints and long waits for the bathroom are balanced out by the perks of having so many members of the family living under one roof. "Having been raised with my grandparents in the house, I can say from firsthand experience that the benefits are many," said Domingo Perez Jr., a licensed real estate salesman at Warburg Realty. For example, Perez Jr. pointed to the fact that his parents never had to worry about getting a baby sitter, and he got the opportunity to bond with his grandparents. "You'll always have a full table at dinner, you'll never worry about your parents traveling to get to your place, and everyone goes their own way at the end of the night, but never too far away," he said.

Deborah Heiser, 50, agrees that having a grandparent around is a major perk. She and her husband and two sons live with her 92-year-old mother-in-law in a home in Great Neck, New York. "The bond [my sons and mother-in-law] share wasn't as strong before she moved in with us," said Heiser. "I also love that my boys are able to see that at 92, their grandmother travels, is extremely social every day, and she always has a treat or snack handy for them. They don't see older adults as a burden or as invalids. They have an expectation that life can be exciting and fun at any age."

Science backs up the idea that close bonds with a grandparent benefit everyone involved. According to one study, kids who grew up close to their grandparents were less likely to be depressed as adults, while on the flip side, another study found that grandparents who baby-sit tend to live longer than those who do not care for other people.

For college grads moving back home, social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., sees another advantage. The most significant positive in that type of situation "is getting to know each other as adults, as people, rather than as mommy-daddy/child," she said. "All parties bond in new ways, some surprising, such as discovering a mutual interest in a sport or adventure or music or art, that they can explore together."

Heiser family photo
Three generations of the Heiser family live in the same house.

Tips for living together under one roof

Whatever the reason for moving multiple generations together in the same household, there are some fairly important things to consider in order to make the situation run smoothly. Goyer recommends first considering your house. "Ask yourself, 'Do we need to modify or make it safer for older adults, children, people with disabilities?'" she said. "Consider how you can use the space so that people have space of their own. That's important, especially if you're moving in together and have lived separately, since all parties have been used to having control over their space."

Goyer also recommends making it a priority to take time away for yourself, while also maximizing the opportunity for intergenerational exchange. "You can facilitate that connection between generations and make sure it happens by having family meetings and family game time, and checking in with people to ask how it's going."

Along these same lines, if your main purpose for setting up a multigenerational family under one roof is for caregiving purposes, keep in mind the entire household is affected by the family member who needs extra attention. "When my nephews were here, it was hard for them living with my dad with Alzheimer's, and I had to be aware of that," Goyer said. "It was important for them to get out of the house and have other things going on, so we made time to go out to the movies and do the things they enjoyed, not to have our whole lives rotate around caregiving."

Concerning finances, John S. Longstaff, CFP and senior planner, suggests securing a financial commitment from each member of the household who is able to do so. For example, "financially, a portion of Social Security or pension goes a long way to make it seem [older parents] are participating in their expenses," he said. And even those household members who can't help with money should find other ways to contribute. "They can help with things around the house, like cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning and laundry," Longstaff said.

No matter how much prep families put into multigenerational living, things can always go awry. For example, there is always the possibility that one or more members of the multigenerational family can get too dependent or accustomed to this particular way of living, which may cause problems for other members of the house. "Young adults get dependent and accustomed to the low cost of living in their parents' house, so sometimes they don't have the motivation to move out," said Doherty. "Or grandparents who live with their adult children and their grandchildren sometimes feel obligated to help raise the grandkids. Oftentimes they feel trapped. Their adult kids use them for day care, sitters and transportation. They end up feeling like they can't go on their own vacations or enjoy free time because their kids need their help and maybe can't afford child care because they haven't budgeted for it."

Why multigenerational families need to talk things out

Making sure that all family members understand and weigh both the positives and negatives before moving in can help prevent huge fights. It's also important to establish roles and boundaries for each household member, including clear-cut expectations of who is paying for what. For an adult child moving back home, Newman also suggests creating an exit plan if the situation is meant to be temporary. "You can always revisit it in six months and revise or extend the time as needed," she said.

Cini stresses those who live in multigenerational homes should also have ground rules in place for handling common disruptions to the routine, such as inviting over guests. Within her own multigenerational family, she said they discussed when they could have family or friends over, and when approval would be needed. "Luckily, no one ever had people over that the other didn't like, but imagine if your mother lives with you and your mother-in-law comes over and they hate each other," she said. "This could create a lot of stress. Think of it like a wedding reception and who needs to sit next to whom, and who is off the guest list altogether."

Multigenerational homes aren't for everyone, but the proof that it can provide long and lasting benefits is fairly solid. Of course, if a longer life, closer family ties and financial help aren't enough of an incentive, Cini said her parents also enjoyed IT support service 24/7 by living with her and her daughter.

Cheryl Lock

Cheryl Lock is a writer who specializes in personal finance topics relating to parenting, real estate and travel, among others. Her work has appeared online at Money, USA Today and Forbes, as well as in national publications like Parents, Woman's Day and Family Circle.