Adding an apartment for the in-laws


July 25, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

A LOT OF our friends and acquaintances are dealing with a particular housing problem: aging parents who don't want to, or shouldn't, live alone.

One solution that's proving a major trend in home remodeling is the "in-law" apartment.

There's been a huge growth in the number of options available to seniors these days -- "adult" communities, assisted-living communities, and adult day care included. But there are sometimes excellent reasons for creating a multigenerational home.

Children get to know their grandparents, who probably remember a different world from that any youngster is growing up in today, and it gives adults a chance to interact with their parents as peers. If the seniors need a bit of assistance, maybe with mobility, the family is there to help. Or if the family needs a bit of help, watching the kids, for instance, the seniors are there.

In-law apartments or living quarters are being added to new homes as well as existing ones. The space usually includes a private bedroom, bathroom and a small living space. The kitchen is shared by the siblings and the parents.

If you're building a new house it is relatively easy to add the space. With an existing house, sometimes you have to be more creative. Ron has worked with clients who are dealing with all types of situations.

The first thing to consider is access. However, other things need to be considered as well. Building codes generally require bedrooms to have an "egress" window. That means the opening must allow a person inside to get out in the event of a fire or to allow entry to firefighters. Sometimes that's not possible in a basement.

The people who wanted to put the apartment in the basement also wanted to install a small kitchen there. But most areas zoned for single-family housing will not allow any kitchen equipment in more than one place, because it would allow the homeowner to rent the space as separate living quarters.

Some jurisdictions will allow another kitchen if a family member is living in the space.

If stairs are an issue, you have several options to avoid them. Ramps are the most common form of handicap access. To create a legal ramp (compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act), it cannot rise more than 1 inch per foot of length. That means that if the base of the ramp is 40 inches lower than the door, you need a 40-foot ramp. The clear width must be 36 inches and landings must be 60 inches wide. Check the codes before you build.

In addition to ramps, you can consider wheelchair lifts, stair climbers and residential elevators.

Ron has seen a number of people looking for in-law space consider the garage.

Of course, the best way to accommodate in-law space is to build an addition. That allows you to build whatever you want (within code restrictions, of course). But that is most likely the costliest option.

As always when planning a project, educate yourself as much as you can. You can never avoid surprises, however simple the project. But research can help you prepare for most eventualities.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at or Karol at Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278.

Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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