- - Thursday, August 11, 2011

It’s 3 a.m. Downstairs, kitchen cabinets are banging, someone is giggling, and there’s the unmistakable ding of a microwave at work.

Time was, Ellie Kirschenbaum would have stormed down the steps and given her children a piece of her mind. She doesn’t do that these days, however, because she’s not dealing with teenagers anymore; her son, Jared, and daughter, Amie, are 29 and 25, respectively.

“I’ve had to restrict myself,” said Ms. Kirschenbaum, who lives in a sprawling home in Chantilly. “I’ve learned that it doesn’t last long.”

She’s not alone in learning new patterns of interacting with her children. More and more adult children are ending up back at home as a tough economy, the cost of housing and the tendency of some parents to, well, hover, make a move back into the family home a no-brainer for many college graduates.

But having the kids move back in can come with a host of challenges, and to meet them, parents are reconfiguring expectations and space and are re-forming behavior patterns that may have taken years to develop. Looking forward to downsizing during the empty-nest years? You might find yourself remodeling instead.

“Having children come back changes the way you are planning to do things as a homeowner, both structurally and for your future plans,” said Robyn Burdett, a Realtor and vice president of Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax. “Most people don’t want to move too far away because they know the kids are coming back at some point.”

According to a study conducted by Twentysomething Inc., a consultant firm specializing in young adults, 85 percent of 2011 college graduates are moving back home. Moving home where the rent is cheap — or nonexistent — can make sense for an adult child, whether he or she is trying to pay off loans or save up for rent or a down payment.

“It’s the new norm,” said Linda Perlman Gordon, a Chevy Chase-based therapist and author, with Susan Morris Shaffer, of “Mom, Can I Move in With You: A Survival Guide for Parents of Twentysomethings.”

The problem is particularly acute in the Washington area, where the high cost of housing coupled with the availability of low-paying entry-level jobs and unpaid internships makes it particularly difficult for 20-somethings to strike out on their own. And after four years spent in a small college town or suburban environment where the sidewalks were rolled up fairly early, the bright lights of our big city can beckon.

“Most of my daughter’s friends are living at home,” Ms. Burdett said. “The house is filled. It’s not just your kids, it’s their friends as well.”

Today, many families are adapting their rec rooms, attics, basements and garages to enable an adult family member to live somewhat independently from the main space.

Too often, however, homeowners may slide into some pretty shoddy renovations.

“It can be horrible,” said Elizabeth Blakeslee, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker in Georgetown. “People just stick cabinets up on walls, put in refrigerators that open the wrong way or can’t open completely. You need to get the permits and do it right. It’s a false economy not to.”

That’s especially important if a homeowner is looking to sell sometime in the future.

“It’s got to be aesthetically appealing,” Ms. Blakeslee said. “Lots of people’s ideas just don’t work.”

Then again, a mother-in-law might have different needs or expectations than your 25-year-old daughter, notes Margaret Clarke of Clarke Architecture, based in the District.

“Parents or in-laws are used to living in their own space, but children are used to being with the family,” she said. “But they want their independence, too.”

For 20-somethings, creating a separate entrance might go a long way in signaling the realization that a return home does not necessarily mean a return to high school strictures.

“A young adult would want to have a separate entrance,” Ms. Clarke said. “You could create a kitchenette space — a place where they could at least have breakfast by themselves.”

Ensuring a means of egress and ingress is especially important in basement conversions because local codes mandate them, but that’s not all you can do. Ms. Clarke recommends making sure there is adequate lighting and there are no water problems, which can make any space feel cold and damp.

“You don’t want it to feel basement-y,” she said. “You can get wood floors that float above the concrete and put down radiant floor heat or an electric mat. Costs for that have come down tremendously.”

An attic space also can offer potential for an adult child, although usually without the separate entrance. A pitched roof can offer loft space, and strategic soundproofing can ensure that even the most ardent drummer isn’t heard below.

Ms. Clarke recommends considering a split system for heating and air conditioning, which would enable different floors to be controlled separately.

“It just makes sense,” she said. “You heat where you are going to be rather than the whole house.”

A converted garage — especially a detached garage — can be the ultimate in 20-something luxury. Just make sure any drywall you might add is fire-resistant.

If you’re thinking you’ll be able to recoup all of your outlay when it comes time to sell your home, however, you may have to think again. According to the 2010-11 Cost vs. Value Report published by Remodeling magazine, attic and basement remodels are relatively expensive but represent good value to homeowners looking for additional space. Still, you won’t get back 100 percent of your investment.

Don’t bank on renting out that remodeled space once your adult children have moved on.

“You cannot sell a home as a rental to a prospective buyer unless you are certain of how the laws apply and the zoning requirements,” Ms. Blakeslee said.

So it may not be a good idea to go overboard with your remodeling.

“The next people are not going to pay top dollar for something they just want to use as a rec room,” Ms. Blakeslee said.

Besides the challenge of how to reconfigure your home’s physical space, the sudden — or even not-so-sudden — appearance of your newly minted college graduate can provoke some unexpected problems, sometimes having to do with the parent’s finances.

“When the kids went off to school, I got to reduce the number of telephones, televisions, etc.,” Ms. Kirschenbaum said. “But when they came back, the bills did, too.”

Setting time limits and charging rent — even if it’s only a nominal one — can help let your adult child continue to grow.

“It’s best for everyone if the adult child can contribute in some form or another,” said Christina Newberry, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based author who has written extensively on the returned-adult-child phenomenon. “Realistically, adults pay rent. If they can’t pay their way, they can still do something that will save their parents money, like clearing the gutters or repainting the garage.”

Parents need to stay mindful of their own goals and plans for the future, too.

“Parents think they have to change the lifestyle they had before the kids came home,” Ms. Gordon said. “It’s important that you don’t change your plans. And you can’t impoverish yourself because your child needs a place to live.”

Having adult children living at home doesn’t necessarily have to pose major challenges, especially when both parties can adjust to changing circumstances.

“The upside is that you do get to see them and get to experience some of the happy times,” Ms. Kirschenbaum said. “I love talking with them about things, adult subjects like current events. The house is constantly filled with people — it’s a very young house.”

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