An “in-law” apartment is one of the more valuable attributes a piece of property can offer, especially for the “Sandwich Generation” – middle-aged adults who are caring for aging parents, often while supporting their own children. According to a recent study by Pew Research on Social and Demographic Trends, nearly 50 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent aged 65 or older and are either raising young children or financially supporting a grown child. About one in seven of those adults are providing support to both. (To see the Pew study in its entirety, please visit www.pewsocialtrends.org.)
An accessory residence is one way for the Sandwich Generation to help aging parents and grown children who return home for financial reasons, or need supervised but independent living due to a disability. Unlike spending money to house aging parents or adult children, owning property with an accessory residence is an investment that allows you to do both, while keeping your family nearby. The residence can be a separate structure or located within the same residence, separate from the family’s sleeping quarters, with a separate bath and kitchen area, and sometimes a separate entrance.
But finding a property suitable for both a primary and accessory residence can be fraught with difficulty. Not only does the property need to be sufficiently large to accommodate an accessory residence, it also needs to be allowed under the municipal bylaws. Here are just a few points to consider when searching for the solution to your Sandwich Generation problems:
Know The Local Bylaws
Whether you are considering developing your existing property or purchasing a new property, the local zoning bylaw will provide the requirements for determining if you can build an accessory residence on your property. For example, Lexington appears to be a desirable town for the Sandwich Generation, with its reasonable commutes to Boston, excellent public schools and resources for seniors. And while the zoning bylaw generally prohibits more than one residence on a lot, there are certain properties that can be developed with accessory residences, provided there is a pre-existing structure (not counting a garage) on the property, and the property meets square footage requirements. So don’t tear down that old barn or stable until you understand your options.
Similarly, development of a property with an accessory use may be hampered by local or state wetlands regulations, but don’t reject out of hand a property with wetlands without at least speaking to the local conservation agent, or, better yet, a wetlands engineer, to understand all of your options. Those wetlands may help you meet lot area requirements for developing an accessory residence on another portion of the property.
Don’t Overlook Existing Structures
You should also consider properties that already have separate living quarters within the primary residence. Many newly constructed homes now include either a first floor office or au pair suite, or a finished third floor with a full bath that can be used as living space, although stairs may be an issue for aging parents. Older homes may offer finished lower levels with a walk-out door and separate entrance, but the space may not be legal or truly functional due to air quality issues, low ceiling height, an emergency exit or other building or fire code requirements for living space.
Know the Community – And Your Limits
Check the town’s website and ask your Realtor about the school system, elder services or other municipal services. Consider the distance to your workplace; you may need to avoid lengthy commutes and get home quickly to handle student activities, or take a parent to a doctor’s appointment. Proximity to your child’s pediatrician or your parents’ primary care physicians is also a key consideration, particularly if your aging parents have used the same doctor or hospital for a long time.
If It Sounds Too Good To Be True …
It may not be. But the stakes may be high – and affect several generations of your family. It is critical to be fully informed. If, like most members of the Sandwich Generation, you don’t have time to become informed on your own, talk to a Realtor about what a town has to offer, and ask for a referral to an attorney who can explain the local bylaws before you make an offer or demolish an existing structure on property you already own.
Specially written for Banker & Tradesman by Julie Pruitt Barry and Bija Satterlee
Bija Satterlee is a licensed Realtor with RE/MAX Leading Edge, specializing in residential real estate in Lexington and Arlington, Mass. Julie Pruitt Barry is an attorney at Prince Lobel Tye LLP in Boston, specializing in zoning, wetlands and other permitting of residential and commercial properties.