The Family That Buys Together Stays Together

·10 min read
Ellen Scherer Crafts and Trevor Crafts with their daughter Riley, 5, and her grandparents Jackie Chirico, center, and Edward and Heather Crafts, outside the home they all bought together in Weston, Conn., July 9, 2021. (Tom Sibley/The New York Times)
Ellen Scherer Crafts and Trevor Crafts with their daughter Riley, 5, and her grandparents Jackie Chirico, center, and Edward and Heather Crafts, outside the home they all bought together in Weston, Conn., July 9, 2021. (Tom Sibley/The New York Times)

Before the pandemic, the Crafts family was scattered: three generations, in three houses, in three different states, with close to zero chance of living together.

Ellen Scherer Crafts and Trevor Crafts lived with their 5-year-old daughter, Riley, in Studio City, California; Jackie Chirico, Ellen’s mother, was in Henderson, Nevada; and Trevor’s parents, Edward and Heather Crafts, were in Richardson, Texas.

But after months in quarantine, with few chances to see each other and limited child care options, they tried something drastic. Each household listed their home for sale in March — and to their surprise, all three sold above asking price within a week.

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In May, with their combined windfall, they bought a $2.6 million, 8 1/2-acre property in Weston, Connecticut, a state that none of them had lived in, with a Colonial Revival-style five-bedroom home, a guesthouse and a barn with a studio.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I didn’t want to miss,” said Edward Crafts, a retired opera singer who now sees his granddaughter daily. “It was just a product of this crazy-hot real estate market that we were able to put it all together.”

The pandemic has not just reshaped the housing market; for a growing number of homeowners, it is remaking the household. After years of slow growth, multigenerational living is on the rise. As members of the baby boom generation move into their 60s and 70s, many are being called upon by their adult children for help raising their young children, while others are looking for ways to care for their aging parents.

With prices for single-family homes soaring in much of the country, consolidating generations under one roof can mean more buying power, which in turn can provide access to less competitive segments of the housing market — namely, the higher end, where the larger homes are. (Buyer beware: It can also mean reliving family get-togethers every day of the year.)

“I think this could be a trend that’s here to stay,” said Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of Realtors, a large trade group.

Multigenerational buying has been expected to grow for years, she said, as families of Asian and Latino descent, who are more likely to live with aging parents, become a larger share of homebuyers nationwide. But it took the pandemic to spur the market.

In a national survey from April to June 2020, during the first wave of the virus, 15% of homebuyers said they bought multigenerational homes, the highest share since 2012, when the group began asking the question. In the eight months before the outbreak, only 11% had bought homes to live with multiple generations of family.

The most common reason cited for the purchase was to bring aging parents into the home because of concerns about isolation and the spread of COVID-19 in senior housing. It also reflects a desire to have grandparents help with child care, Lautz said, with so many parents either working from home or on new schedules.

For Andrea and Dwight Francis, who were renting a 975-square-foot apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, during the pandemic, the arrival last summer of their daughter, Alexandra, gave their home search urgency.

“With the second child, the house just exploded,” said Dwight Francis, 44, a software engineer, who was suddenly working from home along with Andrea Francis, 41, a professor of accounting at LaGuardia Community College, while also caring for their older daughter, Avery, 4. A few weeks before the second child’s arrival, the couple invited Dwight Francis’ mother, Masie, to live with them.

That is when Masie Francis, who, before the pandemic, was living in a retirement community in Atlanta, encouraged the couple to look for a house large enough for her to move in full time. With her financial assistance, the couple bought a Tudor-style row house in Kew Gardens, a Queens neighborhood farther east of Manhattan, in January for about $715,000.

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, Dwight Francis said, because he worried about his mother living alone during the pandemic. “I think as much as she saved us, we saved her,” he said.

Masie Francis, 77, a former teacher, laughed at the notion but did give credit to the grandchildren. “When I’m here, I have company. The kids keep me alive and going.”

Still, most boomers, age 57-75, and members of the Silent Generation before them are not moving as much as they might be — often for the same reasons as younger buyers, said George Ratiu, a senior economist at the listing site Realtor.com.

“They get preapproved and make a bid on a house, only to find there were 18 to 20 offers, $150,000 over ask,” he said. “And in the end, the winning bid is all cash.”

A record 25% of homeowners in 2020 had lived in the same home for more than 20 years, up from 14% in 2010, in part because of high prices, very limited inventory and the cost of moving, according to Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin, a real estate brokerage.

While the pace of U.S. home sales has begun to slow, prices continue to surge. The national median existing-home price in May was $350,300, up nearly 24% from a year ago, a record-high price, and the 111th straight month of year-over-year price gains, according to the National Association of Realtors.

“There was no way that I could afford the cost of a house on my own,” said Erin Wentz-Lesman, 41, a public school teacher in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who had been living in a 769-square-foot co-op with her husband, Toby, who works for a plumbing company, and their two children, Vera, 14, and Ellis, 10.

In October, together with Erin Wentz-Lesman’s parents, Kim and Chip Wentz, both 68, they bought a five-bedroom house in the same neighborhood for $1.25 million. The couple sold their co-op a few months later for about $440,000.

Wentz-Lesman’s parents, originally from Ohio, had moved to a rental in Brooklyn several years ago, after her father retired from the military, to be closer to their grandchildren. Now they live on the first floor of a two-family house with a kitchen stocked full of Popsicles and pizza-flavored Pringles for their grandchildren.

“I always told my husband I wanted to live close enough to help out — but I didn’t know we’d live with them,” Kim Wentz said.

The rental market, especially in cities like New York, where inventory ballooned during the early months of the pandemic, has also influenced homeowners. Jose Madrigal, 68, an architect living in downtown Manhattan, had four tenants at the start of 2020 in his Astoria, Queens apartment building, including his 28-year-old son, Jose Jr. When the virus arrived, the other tenants ended their leases and left the city.

Rather than seek new tenants during the height of COVID, Jose Madrigal, along with his wife, Elizabeth, a pediatrician, and their 19-year-old son, David, decided to move in with his older son, the only remaining tenant, in the Astoria property.

“You hear stories about kids fleeing the pandemic to be with their parents, and the opposite happened to me,” said Jose Madrigal Jr. “And, honestly, it feels great.” To wit: His parents are less inclined than past tenants to complain about his stereo sound system.

“I don’t think he ever thought he’d live with his partying college kid,” Bianca Colasuonno, an agent with Compass who has known the family for years, said about Jose Madrigal, but they were faced with a complicated decision.

After losing their Astoria tenants, the couple tried for a few months to sell the property but were not satisfied with the offers. Moving into the Astoria home meant forgoing additional rental income, and the couple is unlikely to sell their Manhattan apartment anytime soon because the market there has been slower to recover and less robust than in other parts of the city.

But the couple feel more at ease in Queens, where their two-family house is on a residential street with two outdoor spaces. Traveling to nearby Flushing to see their oldest son, his wife and their granddaughter has also gotten easier. “We’re closer now than we probably ever were,” Jose Madrigal said.

For the Craftses, who joined three households to buy a sprawling compound in Weston, Connecticut, their unusual needs meant they faced less competition for their property, at least compared to heated demand in the single-family market.

“It was one of those properties that didn’t work for everybody,” said Kristi Law, an agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s Realty, who helped them buy the home. While many local listings were selling in days or weeks, this compound, which had been on the market for a few months, was larger than what many buyers were seeking. Still, there was urgency to the purchase: Sensing other bidders, the Craftses made an offer, sight unseen, after their first video tour in February; they closed in May.

They were well suited to the property. The original owner, Alice DeLamar, a philanthropist, built the estate in 1931 as an artist retreat. The new owners are all creative in their own right: Scherer Crafts and Trevor Crafts are multimedia producers, who recently completed “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a documentary about the children’s show; Scherer Crafts’ mother, Jackie, is an artist and former arts-and-crafts store owner; and Trevor Crafts’ parents are professional singers and vocal instructors. Even though none of them had lived in Connecticut, they all grew up on the East Coast, where much of the Craftses’ work is now located.

The most unusual feature of the home is a “swim tunnel” in the basement of the main house, which the original owner built as a way to access the outdoor pool without leaving the house. Because it is somewhat open to the elements, a number of croaking tree frogs have taken up residence in the tunnel. “We get serenaded every night,” Scherer Crafts said.

It took some getting used to. “When our granddaughter misbehaves, we send her home,” Edward Crafts joked. He and his wife live in a detached guesthouse, while Scherer Crafts will live in the main house until a barn with a studio on the property can be renovated.

The decision to bring family under one roof is also about posterity. Talib McDowell, 42, and his wife, Joan, are in the process of selling his late grandmother’s brownstone in Brooklyn and using the proceeds to build a new home near Tampa, Florida, for themselves; their children, Sarafina and Talib Jr.; and Talib McDowell’s parents.

For now, McDowell has moved his parents into their five-bedroom home in Valrico, Florida, while he and his listing agent, Gina Ko with Triplemint, sell the home in New York.

Last year McDowell was furloughed from his job in the hospitality industry, and his parents, who recently sold their house in Springfield, Massachusetts, came to their aid both financially and with child care.

“Going through this process, I’m realizing thousands of people are losing their generational wealth simply because of COVID,” McDowell said, especially in communities of color, and he sees this move as a way to consolidate the family’s wealth.

“It’s a huge adjustment,” said Talib McDowell’s mother, Janice, 64, a former administrative assistant at Smith College. “It takes a lot of work to give up everything that you’ve had.”

But the move has had its perks, too, said her husband, Wade McDowell, a retired deputy sheriff. Their son is a trained chef, and in recent months he has enforced a strict vegan diet in the household.

“I’m back to my old college-days weight,” the senior McDowell said, who is down about 20 pounds.

Of course, they are thrilled to see their grandchildren every day, though the children’s loyalties have been tested. “I went to drink a soda, and my grandkid took it and said, ‘You’re not supposed to have that,’” Janice McDowell said. “They tell on us!”

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