Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Selecting a Home for 'New Normal' Family Living

Back in March, a college professor and his homemaker wife received an urgent appeal from their 37-year-old son in New York City. The son wondered if he, his wife and their two toddlers could move into his parents’ small ranch house in suburban Delaware. They were desperate to escape their urban neighborhood, one of the COVID-19 epicenters.

Soon, the son and his family took up residence in modest, semi-finished quarters in his parents’ basement. Fast-forward more than two months and they still have no intention of returning to New York. Indeed, the grandparents are so delighted with the arrangement that they’re now pondering the purchase of a larger place where all three generations could live more comfortably into the indefinite future.

Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist who researches family issues, doesn’t know the people in this true story. But he’s not surprised that the pandemic caused all of them to pile in together.

“Family homes have always served as a refuge in times of crisis. Doubling up is the new normal, not the new abnormal,” says Furstenberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, COIVD-19 caused Furstenberg himself to retreat from his Philadelphia apartment to a five-bedroom country house he owns in Connecticut that he’s now sharing with three grown grandchildren, all of whom are also exiles from urban living.

Real estate specialists say it’s too soon to know the extent to which such COVID-related family arrangements will endure after the pandemic clears. But they observe that like the Delaware professor and his wife, an increasing number of homeowners are now considering a move to a larger property to accommodate multi-generational living -- including housing for family elders.

“It’s not just the pandemic but also financial factors, like student debt, that are causing more family members to move in together,” says Jon Boyd, a Michigan real estate broker who specializes in assisting buyers.

Joel Kan, an economic analyst for the Mortgage Bankers Association (mba.org), says, “Twehe housing market is continuing its path to recovery as various states reopen, leading to more buyers resuming their home search.”

Of course, economic setbacks are currently making it tough for many would-be buyers to fulfill their hopes of upsizing. Yet an increasing number of those who still have solid jobs are now eagerly taking advantage of near-record-low mortgage rates.

Jon Boyd, a Michigan real estate broker who specializes in assisting buyers, says he’s busy these days helping clients define and fulfill their changing expectations. Before arranging any property tours with new clients, he always conducts a 90-minute Zoom meeting to discuss their priorities.

“What’s absolutely risen to the top of the list is a floor plan that lets every adult in the house have a home office for their exclusive use,” says Boyd, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

After thinking it through, he says many buyers realize that bedrooms, which afford privacy for conducting work, are often the best choice for home office space.

“You don’t need a large bedroom, but you do need walls and a door that encloses the space to make it workable,” Boyd says.

Here are a few other pointers for bedroom-minded buyers:

-- Realize that a four-bedroom home could be an affordable purchase.

In many areas, a home with four bedrooms is no more expensive than one with three.

“If you can afford a three-bedroom house, usually you can also afford a four-bedroom house in the same neighborhood,” Boyd says.

Why does that fourth bedroom typically add little to the cost of a property?

The reason, Boyd explains, is that home values are determined primarily by location, as well as square footage. And the square footage of many four-bedroom homes is no greater than three-bedroom properties in the same neighborhood. Because of that, he says a fourth bedroom also doesn’t usually add much, if anything, to the home’s utility costs.

-- Make sure any space counted as a “bedroom” meets the definition.

Given the increasing popularity of properties with plenty of bedrooms, Boyd says it’s not unusual for home sellers to sometimes stretch the definition when counting their bedrooms.

For instance, some sellers will place an armoire and a bed in a small den or another spare room and then will call it a “bedroom.” Or they’ll count a sitting room off a master suite as a “bedroom.” But Boyd says buyers shouldn’t be fooled by these falsely named “bedrooms.”

“If a space doesn’t have a built-in closet of its own, as well as a window or door for egress, it’s not really a bedroom. Likewise, if a room can only be entered through another bedroom, it not a bedroom,” he says.

-- Consider a property with a first-floor master suite for an elder parent.

Boyd estimates that at least 20% of all buyers “are now talking about an elder parent moving in with them at some point in the future.”

If this is a possibility in your case, he says you should consider buying a one-level, ranch-style home or a place with a first-floor suite, complete with a private bath.

Even if your parents can easily scale the stairs now, they might find it a lot harder later. Having ready access to a bedroom with a full bath can be especially important to those who are elderly or have a disability.

"The coronavirus is making everyone more aware of the needs of our aging population. A first-floor master suite is also a terrific plus for resale. All this makes it a win-win for buyers,” Boyd says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)