In hopes of creating a comfortable life, a Chicago mom and her husband decided to "get creative" and bought a duplex with her father. Here are her money-savvy tips for joining financial forces and living with a parent.

By Maressa Brown
December 30, 2020
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Growing up, Christa Battaglia was taught to save as much money as she could. Her parents were "very frugal," rarely taking the family on a vacation. It's something she and her husband have in common. When the Chicago-based couple married in 2003, they were already quite familiar with each other's families and their financial habits.

But while Battaglia focused on saving while working at Northwestern University in digital marketing, she and her husband were finding it challenging to recreate the same kind of comfortable, middle-class life they had growing up. "We found that to be hard in the current economy," she says. "It seems a lot harder for people to own a home."

And once Battaglia and her husband welcomed their first child in 2011, money became an even bigger focal point. "You start out having to pay for daycare," says the now mom of two. "[You also] worry about—even from the time that they're born—where they're going to go to college and how you're going to save for that."

It wasn't long before the couple started discussing whether or not Battaglia should leave her job so they didn't have to pay for child care. Their mortgage was also a concern. But it was when Battaglia's mother passed away in 2012 that the pair decided it was time to make a change and get creative. They started to have the first of several conversations with Battaglia's father about "joining forces financially and getting a place together."

A few of the selling points: They'd be able to "house sit" for him when he went to Florida every winter, and he could be an even more active grandfather.

The Battaglias' case only grew stronger after they welcomed their second child in 2014. "We were living in a two-bedroom condo," she explains. "It was just feeling pretty small at that moment. So we were thinking, 'Are we going to move into a bigger condo? Are we going to move into a house? What can we afford? Where can we afford it?'"

Their search for the right home, which they'd buy alongside Battaglia's father, took two years. In 2015, they bought a two-flat duplex, in which Battaglia's father would have his own unit—but that took another year to renovate. "We needed to renovate the top floor to make it into three bedrooms so that the kids could each have a bedroom, and then, we can have a bedroom with doors," explains Battaglia. "All of that took time."

They encountered a variety of hurdles along the way, like leaking gas and faulty support beams. The Battaglias also had to navigate the new territory of co-ownership. "We agreed with my father that he would pay half, and we would pay half," says Battaglia. "He took all of the money from the sale of his house, and he just threw it straight into his half."

Meanwhile, she and her husband sold their condo and put that money aside for renovation and took out a 30-year mortgage to cover their half of the new home. Battaglia admits that being conservative about spending, it was tough for her to put so much of the couple's savings into renovating their duplex. "But sometimes, you just need to take a risk," she notes.

Since moving into the duplex in fall of 2016, the risk has served to bolster the Battaglias' sense of security. "At some point, [my father's] unit will be available, unfortunately, and that could be a place where a child could live during college, or we could rent it out and get money to help pay for our child's college, or to pay for our retirement," says Battaglia. "My dad agreeing to do this is really a gift that keeps on giving."

Think joining forces financially with a parent could work for your family? Here are Battaglia's money-savvy tips for anyone who might be considering a similar arrangement with a loved one.

Be Prepared to Talk About Money

Communication is key. "When you buy a place with a family member, you need to know what it's going to be like to talk about money with that family member," notes Battaglia.

She explains that she and her husband don't necessarily share all of their financial information with her dad, but they do discuss who will pay for what. "And I'm going to have to approach him every year to settle things like property taxes," says Battaglia.

Aim for Two Separate Units

No matter how close you are with your parent or loved one, having separation and personal space can keep everyone comfortable and capable of living the way they want to live, according to Battaglia. That's why she "highly recommends" getting two separate units, so you're not necessarily sharing all of the common spaces with them. "You have your own kitchen," she says. "If you want to listen to TV or not, you have control over that."

Double-Check Paperwork

Even if your parent isn't on the mortgage, they will likely be involved in other paperwork required to buy a home. Battaglia says it's important to make sure to scrutinize those documents. "You need to be really careful to make sure that [everything] is written up correctly, because we actually did find a lot of errors in certain documents and had to go back and say, 'No, make sure that he is not on this section,'" she notes.

It's also crucial to be aware of how you're being taxed. "A lot of two flats in Chicago are getting renovated into single family homes," explains Battaglia. "And so when the city saw that we did a renovation, someone just decided, 'Oh, you're a single family home now.' And no, we're not. You get taxed at different rates, so we had to argue with the city about it [being] a two flat."

Embrace a New Perspective

For Battaglia, the benefits of living with her father outweigh any extra work—and one of those benefits is being able to offer her kids "a new outlook on money."

"You don't necessarily have to do things a certain way," she notes. "You don't have to live in a single family house. You can be more creative, and thinking outside the box and getting a two flat with your family member is one way to be creative. It's just a smart use of money."

This story originally appeared on parents.com