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All in the Family: How the Pandemic Accelerated the Rise in Multigenerational Living

Tiffany Lequerique-Considine, 37, and her partner, Steve, 48, were trying to figure out a more supportive living arrangement for his 88-year-old mother at the beginning of this year.

The couple knew that the 10,500-foot elevation of their hometown of Breckenridge, CO, would not be ideal for her health. The family talked about a nursing home, but they weren’t thrilled about the cost and had other concerns—and then COVID-19 struck, highlighting the risks to the vulnerable residents of such facilities. So the family decided to buy a home on lower ground, in Lequerique-Considine’s home state of Florida. They purchased a duplex in Naples whose two units each had two bedrooms and two baths, plus 3 acres for their horses, for $375,000. A comparable property in Colorado would have cost close to a million dollars. Steve’s mother packed up her Denver home and moved in July as the couple listed their ranch on the market and Lequerique-Considine sold her business, a hot tub sales and service company, to make the cross-country move in September.

“We knew we were going to have to do something at some point,” says Lequerique Considine. “COVID just pushed it forward.”

Lequerique-Considine and her partner are part of a growing group of American households that count multiple generations under one roof. This trend actually started becoming noticeable several years ago, but the social and economic upheaval of the pandemic has kicked it into a higher gear, as people have lost their jobs and need to conserve money, or want to stay close to elderly relatives without risking visits from the outside. And because of the demographic factors that got this trend going in the first place, this shift in attitude toward home and family is likely here to stay.

After the stay-at-home orders went into effect in many parts of the country in March, there was a 4 percentage point increase in the number of buyers who purchased a multigenerational home, compared with before the pandemic hit, according to a recent report by the National Association of Realtors®. About 15% of buyers opted for a multigenerational home, compared with 11% in the previous year.

“One in six home buyers who purchased during the pandemic purchased a multigenerational home,” says Jessica Lautz, NAR’s vice president of demographics and behavioral insights. “That’s an increase from 1 in 10.”

What does multigenerational housing look like?

These intergenerational homes vary in size and setup. They might be two (or more) attached, fully functional units in a duplex model or one home that offers private kitchens and separate entrances, like a rental unit in a single-family house. They might also be a detached accessory dwelling unit, typically a smaller home, in the backyard of a larger house.

“In our research, we found two key things to make multigenerational housing work better,” says John Graham, co-author of "All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living" and professor emeritus at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine.

“The hardware requirements were to have separate entrances and separate kitchen facilities,” he adds.

Some of the big homebuilders have taken note. Lennar Corp., CalAtlantic Group, and Toll Brothers have been building and selling large homes with two separate entries, kitchens, living spaces, and, in some cases, more than one garage for more than five years now.

As you might expect, homes intended for more than one family tend to be a little larger, by nearly 22%, according to NAR data. The typical existing home is 1,880 square feet and costs about $270,000. Yet a multigenerational abode is roughly 2,290 square feet and costs about 10.7% more, with a $299,000 price tag.

This year, the No. 1 reason for the uptick in purchasing a multigenerational home was to make space to care for and spend more time with older parents, followed by the cost savings of pooling several incomes, according to NAR’s research.

The figures released by NAR account only for recent purchases. The actual number of intergenerational households that have formed since the start of the pandemic has actually increased by a staggering 61%.

Pew Research Center found that around 6 in 10 adults who have moved since March say they have relocated to a family member’s home. Of those, 41% moved in with their parents or in-laws, 4% moved in with an adult child or in-law, and 16% moved in with another family member. Some of these newly formed households may be temporary. Once vaccines become widely available, older Americans may go back to assisted-living facilities and younger adults may return to college campuses or their cramped city apartments. On the other hand, many could opt to make these living arrangements more permanent after realizing the benefits.

“Census data released this summer showed the highest share of young adults 19 to 29 years old are living at home since the Great Depression,” says Lautz.

Though record-high unemployment certainly has something to do with it—18% of the U.S. adults who said they'd moved because of the pandemic say their reason for moving was financial—the reasons for doing so vary from college campuses closing and the ability to work remotely to wanting to spend more time with family during the crisis or reducing their risk of contracting the virus.

Often, it's a combination of factors. Jacqueline Gamache, 36, her husband, Kevin, and their 2-year-old son ditched their cramped Chicago apartment in early April in favor of Gamache’s parents’ three-story house across the lake in Holland, MI. The plan was to wait out the stay-at-home order for a couple of weeks. The couple ended up staying for two months. “It wasn’t out of an unfortunate financial event,” says Gamache. “It was for us to manage the needs of a toddler and still be able to go outside.”

While the trend of bringing more than one nuclear family under one roof has soared in 2020, it started long before COVID-19 got everyone thinking about pandemic pods.

The real roots of the rise of multigenerational living

In 2016, a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data found that a record 64 million people—20% of the U.S. population—lived with multiple generations of adults in a single-family home. “Multigenerational living has been rising since last recession,” says Graham.

The share of Americans cohabiting with family has not been this high since 1950, when 21% of the population shared an address with different generations of their family. That percentage dropped to a low of 12% in 1980 but has seen a dramatic surge since 2008. At that point, it was fueled not by recession but by demographic shifts.

Census data show that Asian, Black, and Hispanic families are more likely to live in multigenerational households than non-Hispanic whites. (Blacks and Hispanics also are more likely than whites to have suffered economically during the pandemic.) In addition, the nation's population is aging. By 2040, around 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65, up from 1 in 8 in 2000.

Combining households with younger family members is a solution for taking care of the upside-down population pyramid created by the baby boomers, says Graham.

Even before the advent of COVID-19, the age of individuals experiencing homelessness was projected to trend upward until 2030. Much of that is related to the high cost of housing, as more than 10.9 million households spend more than 50% of their income on shelter. Even with record-low interest rates, the cost of buying a home remains stubbornly out of reach amid historically low inventory levels, which push up prices.

In November, the national median listing price was down slightly from the staggering $350,000 in August of this year, to $348,000. That’s still up 12.7% compared with last year, and large metros saw an average price gain of 8.8% compared with the same time period in 2019. “We need to do things to actually encourage families getting back together,” says Graham. “One of the positive aspects of COVID is its supercharging this return to multigenerational living.”

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