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In-Law Suites Q&A: How to Add a Separate Living Space to Your Home

As your family’s needs evolve, your home must evolve, too. Whether you want to stay where you are for many years to come, accommodate extended family members, welcome your grown children back home, or create a versatile and even monetizable new separate living space, an “in-law” suite is a wonderful way to improve your quality of life, and your home’s value.

What is an “in-law suite,” also known as a mother-in-law apartment, granny flat, secondary or multigenerational suite, among others? How are they different from an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), additional dwelling space, home extension, or independent living unit? Here we’ll cover what they are, why they’re popular, and how to design and build the right one for you.

What is an “In-Law Suite”?

bloomfield addition and renovationAn “in-law suite” is a separate area in your house designed typically for seniors to live conveniently, comfortably, and safely. Since nearly a fifth of American households are multigenerational, millions of homeowners have renovated their houses to provide older family members with private accommodations instead of more expensive and impersonal assisted living facilities.

Since separate living spaces are also useful for residents of all ages, such as college students living at home between semesters, kids, or middle-aged guests, many Birmingham homeowners plan them with multiple purposes in mind. As long as these spaces are designed and built with safety and convenience features for aging adults, an in-law suite can work for everyone.

How Do In-Law Suites Vary?

In-law suites can vary greatly in terms of their type, size, layout, furnishings, location, and quality. On one extreme, these suites can function as a home-within-a-home, complete with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, and separate entrance; on the other extreme, they can be much simpler, and more cost-effective. We’ll cover the many types below.

An in-law suite boosts lifestyle and value but is a complex project, and we’re here to help. To determine the type of in-law suite that’s ideal for your home, we’ll first review the many options available. Then we’ll share several of the questions you should ask to identify your exact needs and expectations and show how they translate into optimal design and build recommendations.

What are the Types of In-Law Suite?

Since budgets vary widely, and lot space is often limited throughout Birmingham, not all of these types will work for your family. That said, knowing all of your available options is a good place to start, after which you and your renovation partner can choose an optimal one for your home.

In-law suites are organized into three main types: (1) suites that are entirely within the existing home, (2) an attached addition on top or adjacent to the existing structure, and (3) a detached addition. The type you choose will determine the overall size, possible layout, and number of rooms:

(1) Suite within an existing home: this type of remodel doesn’t require changes to your home’s foundational structure or property, and is, therefore, the least complex and costly. The minimally invasive approach is to use what you already have and make it better. Examples include:

Upgrading existing living spaces

  • The most straightforward type of in-law suite is taking an existing and underused bedroom, bathroom, and additional living spaces, and modernizing them. Upgrades can include new paint, wallpaper, fixtures, and furnishings, with added safety and convenience features for senior residents with changing health needs.

Converting a garage, attic, loft, porch, or other space

  • The next step up from an upgrade is transforming a purely functional space into a comfortable and safe separate living space suitable for aging family members and of course younger residents, even renters. You and your remodeling contractor will have to start from scratch, but that also gives you boundless creative freedom in unexpected places.

Finishing an unfinished basement

  • Birmingham basements or lower levels often have the square footage of the home’s entire first floor, affording plenty of room to design and build an enticing and comfortable separate living space. Working around the house’s infrastructure can be a challenge, and stairway access is necessary, but this option works well for many homeowners.

Changing layout and floor plans

  • This more sophisticated and costly approach to in-law suites could prove worthwhile, offering you and your family greater flexibility. It may involve removing and adding walls, as well as installing new plumbing and electrical lines, but the benefits are substantial. Consider the possibility of creating an en suite bathroom near an unused bedroom, among other options.

Primary Suite

(2) Suite as an attachment to your home: this type of remodel doesn’t disrupt the existing layout and boosts your home’s available square footage, but is more demanding on your wallet, in terms of making structural changes. The added options might entice you, though, and include:

Building upward

  • The sky might be the limit for in-law suite additions on top of your garage or second-floor rooms, but check your budget and local zoning restrictions first. Since you’re building more square footage, you’ll also need to ensure the architectural style blends seamlessly with your existing home and don’t forget concerns about stairs.

Building outward

  • An in-law suite constructed flush with your existing house offers first-floor access and increased privacy. However, due to limited lot space in most of Birmingham, you may not have the available yard area. Similarly, the same principles apply to preserving your home’s legacy style, with the absence of stairs being a significant selling point for this option.

garage conversion adu

(3) Suite as a detached freestanding second home: this type of remodel gives you the utmost freedom, but comes at the highest cost and with the most conditions. Budgetary and lot space limitations might make it impossible, but flexibility, convenience, and privacy are winning points.

Small but scalable guest house

  • If your pocketbook, land, and local zoning allow it, then a guest house with its own private bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen could be the ultimate in-law suite. With its first floor access, family members of all ages and needs could live with you but apart from you, a perfect balance.

Converted shed or external garage

  • A detached in-law suite that’s significantly more affordable and in many cases feasible is transforming an existing freestanding storage unit or garage into a living space. The downside is less room and loss of functional space, while the upside is cost and practicality. Work with your remodeling contractor to see if this option is even possible.

How Do You Plan an In-Law Suite?

Your available budget, lot space, and zoning freedom will cull your in-law suite options, but from then on the specific expectations of your family should guide you in the right direction. As the name suggests, start by considering the needs of your parents/in-laws first. Remember, younger family members can always live in a senior-optimized space, but not the other way around.

Design to ADA Compliance

bathroom shower interior remodel bloomfield hillsThat said, regardless of which type of in-law suite you choose, addressing multiple factors is vital, including health, memory, and mobility issues of aging adults. In terms of design, the space should be ADA-compliant, with wider hallways and doorways, room for wheelchairs and walkers, and bathrooms with curbless showers, grab bars, etc. First-floor access is optimal.

Vision challenges necessitate that every surface should be brightly illuminated. That means bright and plentiful walkways, pathways, and open space lighting, with clear doorways and no missed steps. Auto-blinds and touch-sensitive fixtures also work wonders, as do smart appliances – so long as they aren’t too techie and complex for seniors to figure out and work.

As far as any layout is concerned, the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen should be readily accessible. Note that doesn’t necessarily mean they all need to be completely separate from your existing spaces. Fully functional and practical in-law suites can feature shared bathrooms and kitchens, depending on needs and available budget and space. Creativity is key!

Be Clear on the Details

After applying these “universal living” design standards and principles, you need to ask your entire family about the details. Every answer to every question will suggest design and build specifications for your proposed in-law suite. To get started, who is the separate living space for? As your family evolves, how will the space need to change? Privacy? Noise? All important.

Create and Share Your Vision

After discovering what your family expects in a new in-law suite, get together and browse online remodeling resources like Houzz and others for creative ideas. Then share your vision with a trusted local remodeling contractor, ideally a “design-build” firm that is responsible for every aspect of your project, able to avoid problems by connecting all the dots between blueprints and your build.

How Do You Build the Best In-Law Suite?

Handshake with Design Build or Legal Partner

Hire a Design-Build Partner

Working with your design-build partner, you’ll be able to settle on the type and layout of the in-law suite that best meets your family’s needs and expectations. If you’ve chosen to create a suite within your existing home, then they’ll determine a budget and create a design that ensures the new space will have enough privacy, and blend with your legacy interiors.

If you and your contractor decide to pursue an attached or detached addition, then they’ll also guide you through zoning compliance and permitting needs, and any sewer/septic needs. Ensuring that the architectural style of the addition matches that of your existing home is crucial, and a reminder of why a true “design-build” firm is vital to connect the dots from start to finish.

Whether you choose a relatively simple bedroom and bathroom upgrade or a full-blown guest house, an experienced contractor will work with you to minimize inconvenience throughout the process. They’ll hire all the experts, manage the construction timeline, and be responsible for any unexpected changes and challenges. Quality assurance should also be job number one. 

Consult Legal and Financial Experts

A trusted remodeling contractor can also provide references to legal and financial experts, experienced in rental regulations, property taxes, and financing options. Highly qualified folks like Tim Smith, Senior Mortgage Banker at First Merchants Bank , are eager to assist. “From small projects to large, Home Equity Credit to One Note loans, we’re here to make your dream home a reality!”

The Ideal In-Law Suite: A Comfortable and Safe Home-Within-A-Home

mother-in-law enjoying new ADU home

An in-law suite is a separate living space for multigenerational living. The renovation will enhance your family’s lifestyle and home’s value by transforming existing rooms or building new spaces that offer aging family members and others the luxury of a private, convenient, and safe part of your home. Options abound, and a trusted design-build firm can help you choose wisely.

Central to the success of your new in-law suite is creating a welcoming environment for its residents. The interiors should not only match those of the rest of your home but capture the unique desires and preferences of the inhabitants. To ensure such a personalized experience for your loved ones, make them a part of the design process from the very beginning.

The Ideal Partner: Birmingham’s Most Trusted Design Build Firm 

MainStreet Design Build is a full-service, design-build remodeling firm headquartered in Birmingham, MI. As the leading design-build firm, MainStreet Design Build is committed to delivering a luxurious end-to-end experience, marked by personal care, accountability, timeless design, and exacting attention to detail. Since 1991, our team has made the renovation process comfortable, enjoyable, and safe, ensuring your home transformation exceeds your expectations at every turn.

Having produced elegant results that transform remodeling dreams into stunning and functional in-law suites, MainStreet Design Build is favored by discerning homeowners in Southeast Oakland County who value a high level of comfort and trust in knowing that their trending remodeling project will be done RIGHT. Browse our gallery of award-winning modern home additions for 2024, and schedule a virtual design consultation. Let’s partner today!

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