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Andrea and Chris Ward’s life won’t turn into a Hollywood movie anytime soon, and that’s perfectly fine with them.
Chris’s parents, Linda and Bill, an active pair in their 70s, live directly beneath them, yet there are no cinematic high-jinks. No father-in-law spritzing Windex to thwart off evils like in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or anyone pulling a Greg Focker in Meet the Parents, nervously admitted they’ve milked a cat.
“It is a really joyful arrangement,” says Andrea, a marketing professor at Humber College, of having on-site in-laws. (Chris works in banking.) She admits a similar set-up would have been trying, to put it politely, with her own mother.
The Wards — including their 12-year-old son, Ben, and a golden retriever, Touton — have lived in their mid-century side-split in Mississauga for 15 years and hadn’t previously considered turning it into a duplex.
They were using their 1,100-square-foot basement, which had a poky old bathroom, as an office/den and rec room. They could easily bring those functions upstairs.
“We would joke about living together over family dinners,” says Andrea. At the time, Andrea’s sister-in-law was living with Bill and Linda. But when she moved out, and Bill “doing different jobs around town and poor Nana in the big house by herself,” Andrea figured it only made sense to live together.
“It was an opportunity, really. There was too much house for both of us. They are aging and it’s harder to maintain a full house,” says Andrea. In the much longer term, she says, adding a separate unit to their own house creates “a place for Ben to live, or an income property. A way for Ben to inherit into the housing market versus having to put together a massive down payment.”
Linda liked the thought, with the caveat that the space “would reflect the life they were living before, on a smaller scale,” says Andrea.
Compact digs with fewer stairs to climb also made sense for the senior couple’s miniature dachshunds, Tucker, who is 10, and Maggie, who is going on 16.
So Linda and Bill listed their large house in Etobicoke in 2019, moving in with Chris and Andrea right before the pandemic shut down the city.
Interior designer Michelle Hurley and the team from Alair Homes Oakville overhauled the basement in four months, with an additional two months to secure permits and solidify the design. (Linda and Bill stayed in a one-bedroom short-term rental during the reno.)
“It was seamless and went tickety-boo,” says Hurley. “Everything was ordered in advance.” The only snag was a previously cold room under a porch that needed weather-proofing. A fireplace in what is now the bedroom was also removed.
Trailing over two levels, the freshly finished basement, with its white and blue coastal palette, has a spacious entryway lined in shiplap. A glass door filters in natural light. The unit overlooks the gardens, perfect for Linda, the green thumb in the family. “She’s turned it into an oasis,” says Andrea.
A luxurious bathroom has a separate rain head shower and soaker tub. The modern subway-tiled kitchen has a large pantry.
Linda, a passionate crafter, also has her own quilting room.
“We considered the issue of mobility for the future,” says Hurley. “The entrance of the unit is ground level from the side door, and wheelchair accessible.”
Other age-in-place features include grab bars and electrical installed on both sets of stairs (there’s seven steps in total, one leading to a sunken living room) for a chair-lift, if needed.
“Linda has a passion for design and appreciates nice things,” says Hurley. “It was very exciting to collaborate on the project.”
Andrea and Chris spent $250,000 on the remodel, borrowing the base amount from their in-laws from the sale of their home. “We ‘pay’ them back in market value rent of about $1,800 per month. I put together an amortization schedule, including principle and interest, to which we all agreed, to avoid any potential family squabbles.”
Linda and Bill pay their own electricity and cable bills. “We pay water, extra household insurance and property tax,” says Andrea.
“It’s probably more than what most would spend, however we went high end on everything from the appliances to the fixtures,” says Andrea. “There’s also heated floors, accessibility features in the washroom, a [good] washer/dryer upstairs and downstairs, hard-wired fire alarms, soundproofing, pocket doors and recessed heat/air exchange [units].”
Linda is thrilled with her new home. “It doesn’t feel like a basement because it’s a side-split,” she says. “The higher level has the kitchen. I love to cook, and so I spend a lot of time there with access to the backyard and the grill.”
In addition to flowers, she’s planted herbs, along with tomatoes in an IKEA bag, following the popular hack.
Her 12-year-old sous-chef, Ben, is never far. “We’ve baked banana bread together from (Joanna Gaines’s) Magnolia Table cookbook. And spaghetti sauce,” says Linda. “And I’ve taught him how to make teriyaki chicken in the slow cooker.”
Every day after school, “Ben barely says hi,” before heading for a walk with the dogs and his grandmother, Andrea adds. “They were always close but we would only see them once every two weeks.”
That said, there are boundaries. “They have their own life to live,” says Andrea, who never assumes her in-laws can babysit, and everyone knocks first before entering each other’s spaces.
Granted it’s convenient to “pop down for whipped cream and sugar.”
For Linda’s part, it’s bittersweet. “During the pandemic, my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so he hasn’t been well,” she says. “And I know if we had still been in the house, it would have been awful. We wouldn’t have seen Andrea and Ben. I couldn’t have gotten through it.”