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In-law Suite: Finding a New Home

Some people are thinking bigger when it comes to in-law suites.

For John Lapp, a mother-in-law suite seemed like the best solution early on. Yet, his wife, Jennifer Lapp, and her mother, Marguerite Murray, 87, weren’t so sure.

Having Murray move in was a big step, and Murray wanted to consider all the options. One thing they knew, the current set-up wasn’t working. The Lapps lived in Alexandria, while Murray, who had stopped driving a few years after her husband, Jim, died in 1997, lived in Garrett Park, Md.

“We spent a lot of our time driving back and forth, and as Marg got older we worried more and more,” said John Lapp. “You can only rely on friends and neighbors for so much,” said Jennifer Lapp.

So, they began looking into retirement homes.

“[Marguerite] had been to Collington, Asbury, and Leisure World, and she wasn’t thrilled with community living,” said Jennifer Lapp. “She values her privacy and her aloneness, and she’s a fanatic gardener — she didn’t want to give those things up.”

John Lapp pushed the option of building a mother-in-law suite. Traditionally, an in-law suite includes a smaller housing unit — including a bedroom, a kitchenette and bathroom — attached to or adjacent to the main housing unit. In the best case, the suite allows the in-laws and the other family members to maintain their privacy and lifestyle.

“We looked into the price of retirement homes in general and the way you have to finance them,” said John Lapp. “The price of moving into the addition was comparable to moving into a retirement home, but she’d be right here with us, so we decided to build the addition.”

In 2003, the Lapp’s began planning the suite — not just any suite, but an entire addition: an extra 2,000 square feet to be exact. Just about half of the new addition to the Fairfax County home went toward Murray’s new living quarters, while the rest expanded other areas of the exiting home.

Not until Murray was convinced, however, did they move forward. Murray paid for the addition by selling her house in Garrett Park. After looking into various living options, Murray decided she preferred the addition because it allowed her to provide for her own accommodations and give back to her daughter, rather than spend her entire estate on rent at a retirement home. As part of the final agreement, the Lapp’s reimbursed Murray’s estate with $50,000 to be distributed to Murray’s other children.

“She took over our master bathroom,” said John Lapp, describing Murray’s new accommodations. “We made her a handicap bathroom, a huge kitchen and pantry, and a dining room-great room, and her own outside backyard balcony.”

IN ALL, the Lapps almost doubled the size of their home. And even though the Lapps are now just a room away, Murray received the privacy she wanted.

“There are going to be more and more people who are looking for places to retire,” said Jennifer Lapp, referring to others who might want to consider building a mother-in-law addition.

Over the next 25 years, baby boomers, which represent nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, will be retiring.

Yet right now these same people, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, have been helping to make decisions about where and how their parents retire. Some families have found that mother-in-law suites, ones that are larger and more separate than the traditional concept, are a good option.

Contractors have noticed an upward trend for this type of living solution. “Over the years, we’re definitely seeing more desire to do this kind of thing,” said David Foster of Foster Remodeling Solutions, Inc. in Lorton. “For the ones we’ve been involved in, it’s like building a mini-house onto the main, existing home.

“One thing we’ve seen on these projects is that they take a while to work through,” said Foster, who has been contracting for 22 years. He said that for these particular projects design and planning are very important, and thus require more time than other projects.

“The parents are looking for one thing and the son or daughter that they’ll be living with are looking for another,” Foster said. “Marriaging the two can be more complicating [than other projects].”

ANOTHER CONTRACTOR, Scott Kestner, owner of the Apollo Group, a design-build contracting company in Clifton, has also noticed the trend. “In the last three years, I’ve started to see a whole lot more of [in-law suites] be a consideration for people.”

“Maybe the baby boomers are looking to take care of their parents, rather than looking to outside sources,” Kestner said on the reason behind the trend. Kestner, whose company has just started another in-law suite project in Fairfax Station, said that privacy tends to be the biggest concern in this type of project.

Tom Hazzard, who works out of Arlington representing Natelli Homes of Gaithersburg, Md., has been involved in residential design-build for 15 years. He said that in-law suite projects should integrate seamlessly with the existing home. He said that design, as well as costs, should reflect the neighborhood. “I’ve done [in-law suite projects] anywhere from $150,000 to $450,000,” Hazzard said.

Foster was quick to point out that this is not a solution for everybody. He said that this type of project is often stalled or canceled when there becomes a need for additional medical care that can’t be provided at home. He also said that an addition is “a huge financial undertaking” that often requires funding from the retiring parents and the son or daughter’s family.