It all started with a broken collarbone. After Cheryl Ayotte’s widowed mother, Kathy Fredendall, slipped and fell outside her garage, Ayotte found herself doing a lot more shuttling between her mom’s place in Buffalo, Minn., and her own home in Chanhassen.
“I was driving back and forth,” she recalled, trying to help her mom, while also continuing to work as a real estate agent and home stager. The commute was starting to take its toll. Mother and daughter agreed it might be a good time for Mom to move to a smaller home that was easier to maintain — and closer to her daughter. “I didn’t want her more than five minutes away,” Ayotte said.
So they started looking at condos and townhouses. “But I couldn’t find anything without astronomical homeowners association fees — for tennis courts and a pool she wasn’t going to use.”
And even if they could find the right place for right now, what about the future, when Fredendall might need more daily assistance?
Then Ayotte’s husband, Bob, had an idea: “Let’s have her move here.”
Cheryl, who had studied architectural drafting years ago, was intrigued by the idea of reinventing their 1980s split-level house to create space for her mother.
“I started drawing,” she said.
The Ayottes, who have lived in their home for more than 20 years, were also yearning for some upgrades for themselves. Their kitchen and dining area, in particular, felt cramped, especially when they hosted their neighborhood gourmet club or when their four adult children and granddaughter came for visits. “We needed more room but didn’t think we’d do anything about it,” Bob said.
An in-home condo
Kathy’s broken collarbone became a catalyst to overhaul much of the house. They added a 1,000-square-foot apartment, complete with its own laundry room, above the garage. “It’s like a condo inside our own home,” Bob said. “I like that we can take care of family.”
They also added an extra garage stall with a separate entrance for Kathy, a “storage pit” for Bob and a 6- by 22-foot addition that allowed the Ayottes to rework their own living, dining and kitchen spaces.
Cheryl fine-tuned the design, paying special attention to the roofline. “She made sure it integrated with the rest of the neighborhood,” Bob said. “We talked to all the neighbors to get buy-in.”
When Cheryl had the design just the way she wanted it, the couple hired an architect to turn it into a buildable plan. Bob, an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, served as general contractor.
Kathy moved in with the Ayottes, and they started construction, which was a yearlong process.
“We got to know each other [living] in the basement,” Bob said. “It took longer with me as general contractor,” he added, because he was still working full time (he recently retired), while putting in another 30 hours a week managing the project.
But his serving as general contractor saved a lot of money, 25 to 30 percent, he estimated. They were able to double their finished square feet to about 3,300 (mostly within the original footprint), including new appliances, for about $200,000.
“If you have the skill set, I really recommend being your own general contractor,” he said.
He and Cheryl also did all the cleanup at the end of the day, sweeping up sawdust, because they didn’t want to pay skilled laborers to do unskilled work.
But they hired skilled help to handle electrical, plumbing and other specialized work. “You need to be smart enough to know what you don’t know,” Cheryl said. “We called in experts.”
Kathy had a lot of input in the design and finishing of her apartment. “I picked out colors, shades of tile,” she said.
Privacy was important to her, so the Ayottes separated the back wall of the kitchen from Kathy’s entry hall off the garage using a decorative pocket door made of poured glass that allows light to filter through. “It was a great excuse to splurge,” said Cheryl.
The Ayottes also incorporated features to ensure that all three members of their household can age in place. The staircase from the garage to Kathy’s apartment is wide enough for future installation of a lift chair if that becomes necessary. The stairs are equipped with motion-activated lighting, designed to help prevent any more falls.
“When her feet hit the floor, the light comes on,” Cheryl said. “It’s nice when you have your hands full.”
They even installed a dumb waiter that opens in the garage, in the Ayottes’ kitchen and upstairs in Kathy’s apartment. “It takes wear and tear off your body when you’re hauling stuff in,” Cheryl said. “Costco runs are so much more fun.”
Downstairs, in their own part of the house, the Ayottes wanted to create better spaces for entertaining. They removed the wall that separated the kitchen and the dining room, and created a new dining area in one corner of the now open space.
For seating, Cheryl wanted a banquette. She found a Pottery Barn sectional and took it to an upholsterer to make the seats dining-chair height, using thick firm cushions covered with tough, easy-clean Sunbrella fabric. “You can zip it off and wash it,” she said. “That was important to me. I wanted it to look nice but I didn’t want to freak out about spills.”
For their new kitchen, she also wanted sleek yet easy-clean surfaces. For the countertops, she found a remnant of dark honed, leathered granite. “Somebody ordered it and didn’t like it, but it’s just what I wanted — black but not shiny,” Cheryl said.
For their backsplash, they chose a patterned tile designed for flooring. “It hides all the splatters.” She let Bob choose the knotty alder cabinets — even though she would have preferred painted ones. (The wood cabinets and quartz countertops from their previous kitchen were repurposed in Kathy’s kitchen.)
The Ayottes’ new kitchen is actually smaller than their previous one, Bob noted, but feels much more spacious. “The way she laid it out, it’s more functional.”
Even their outdoor spaces got a makeover. Bob relandscaped the pie-shaped backyard, adding a drain-tile system and a dry streambed, to handle runoff.
Kathy moved into her finished apartment in March. “It turned out beautifully,” she said. Downsizing to a smaller home was a bit of an adjustment at first, but she loves her new neighborhood. “The people are so warm and friendly.” She enjoys the neighborhood Bunco group, and has found a favorite nearby hiking trail.
Cheryl enjoys the new, improved spaces for entertaining. “Before, anytime the kids and their significant others came, it was crowded,” she said. “We had to put people downstairs, and I was running up and down the stairs. Now we can have a dinner party for 12 or an open house for 50 people.”
And it’s much easier to spend time with her mother, she added. She sees friends struggling to find time for their aging parents — and appreciates that it’s not a struggle for her.
“I don’t have to have special plans,” she said. “We can have a cup of coffee together in the morning.” And Kathy helps them, by letting their dogs out when they’re not around. “It’s worked out great!”