Lew Sichelman

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first house you bought was the last one you ever needed to own? 

Imagine if the house lasted your entire lifetime – that you’d never have to leave, uprooting your family in the process, and that you could even pass the place down to your descendants. 

In other words, a forever home: one you could expand as the need for more space arose. One that could accommodate children, when they came along; your parents, when they became too old to live on their own; or an adult child returning to the nest. Maybe it could hold your parents and your kids at the same time. 

Few people ever live in such a place. According to Redfin, people move from one house to another every dozen years or so. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Indeed, anyone can.  

With a little forethought and effort, you can build or buy a house for the ages. And it need not be an expensive, architect-designed custom house, either; production houses can fit the bill.  

Practically any builder can construct such a house, “as long as they offer the appropriate set of upgrades,” said Boyce Thompson, author of the new book “The Forever Home: Designing Houses to Last a Lifetime.” 

Unfortunately, most production builders tend to build for specific markets – first-timers, for example, or trade-up buyers or empty nesters. But in doing so, Thompson said, “they give short shrift” to things buyers may require down the road. 

Thompson is an excellent source on the subject. For 17 years, he was the editorial director of “Builder,” an award-winning trade publication serving the new-home business. (I once wrote occasional stories for “Builder.”) He’s also the founding editor of six trade magazines, including “Residential Architect,” “Big Builder” and “Digital Home.” 

“The Forever Home” is his fourth book, and features interviews with 20 families who have built their “immortal houses.” It covers the topic from numerous perspectives, profiling young families, baby boomers, single parents, recently divorced people and more. It’s full of big color photographs and even includes floor plans. 

Longevity is Key 

I asked Thompson, who concedes that he and his wife still live in an “obsolete” house in Bethesda, Maryland, about the factors to consider in a forever house. As you might have guessed, longevity is an important one. 

“Think about what you may need for the long run,” he advised. One-floor living is ideal, as are wider doorways, but most people automatically think of those things. But what about wider halls as well? Not only do you need them to accommodate a wheelchair, Thompson said, but they are also “more elegant.” 

A cradle-to-grave house should have a low- or no-threshold entry and a room on the first floor that can be turned into a bedroom if needed. A powder room that can be turned into a full bathroom is another must. Thompson suggests a half-wall between the sink and commode that can be removed to make way for a wheelchair, or you can make sure the powder room is next to a closet or pantry that can be converted into a roll-in shower – one equipped with French drains to make it easier to access.  

“Clearances around the toilet are big,” said Thompson. 

Don’t forget the outside of the house, though, especially roofing, siding and windows. “These three are worth upgrading because they improve your home’s energy and maintenance performance in the long run,” he said. 

It’s probably cost-prohibitive to opt for the longest-lasting natural materials, like real stone and slate roofs. But fiber cement or cedar siding and faux-tile roofing will “last a long time with minimum maintenance,” he said. 

Speaking of costs, Thompson said a forever house “doesn’t have to be more expensive,” provided you do your research and plan ahead.  

Some of his suggestions: Finish the basement when you need more space. Opt for a decent, functional kitchen instead of one that looks like the set for a cooking show. Hold back on fancy interior touches like crown molding until you have some extra cash. Plan for later additions. 

In other words, “Only build what you need in the beginning, but plan for later,” Thompson said.  

New York architect Nathan Dalesio took that “enlightened path” when designing a house for his family, Thompson said, by first focusing on the basics: an airtight building with a resilient roof and durable windows. But Thompson said Dalesio’s “most inspired move was to visualize future expansion.” 

“We planned the house so that we could add things down the road that were out of reach of our budget right now,” said Dalesio. 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

One House, Forever

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 3 min