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Empty Nesters Reclaim the Kids’ Rooms

When the kids move out, some parents are quick to reclaim childhood bedrooms and create dream spaces like yoga studios, ‘snore rooms’ and fantasy closets.

With children grown and gone, parents are taking over vacated bedrooms and redesigning them for a new life. Photo: Jesse Neider for The Wall Street Journal

It took Evelyn Benatar’s son, Allen, an actor and drummer, several years into adulthood to move out of his childhood bedroom. When he finally did, Ms. Benatar acted with warp speed.

“Before he even hit the driveway, I was making his room into my home office,” said Ms. Benatar, 55, an interior designer who lives in Great Neck, N.Y. Down came the Pantera, Megadeath and Slayer posters. Out went the snare drums. Then, a roughly $50,000 makeover brought in custom cabinetry, window treatments, Donghia leopard-print chairs and a Jonathan Adler desk.

Evelyn Benatar transformed her son’s childhood bedroom into an office in her Great Neck, N.Y., home. The roughly $50,000 project includes custom cabinetry and leopard-print chairs. ENLARGE
Evelyn Benatar transformed her son’s childhood bedroom into an office in her Great Neck, N.Y., home. The roughly $50,000 project includes custom cabinetry and leopard-print chairs. Photo: Jesse Neider for The Wall Street Journal

Her son was skeptical: “It was my little dungeon for so long. How do you turn a heavy-metal room into a pretty office?” But when he saw the new office for the first time, “I was so impressed I couldn’t even be mad,” said the 33-year-old, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Forget bedrooms that are shrines to a childhood past. After the children head to college or move away, some empty nesters are quick to reclaim and repurpose their rooms into yoga studios, gift-wrapping rooms, workout areas, home offices and dream closets. Increasingly popular are “snore rooms,” an escape for when a sleeping bedmate reaches the decibel level of a leaf-blower.

On a 3-acre Tuscan-style estate in Atherton, Calif., interior designer Paul Wiseman created two snore rooms for clients whose son and daughter had moved out. The homeowner, who declined to be named, said “my youngest son made me promise that whatever I did I wouldn’t turn his room into a frilly room.” So it became the husband’s snore room, with a “very Casablanca” design—Moroccan-style painted tile in the bathroom, dark window shutters and a wooden, poster bed, Mr. Wiseman said.

The daughter’s room became the wife’s snore room, with an English country-style canopy bed, lots of pillows and floral wallpaper. The couple now falls asleep in the master bedroom, but can sneak out to their respective hideaways if the need arises.

Mr. Wiseman, president of the Wiseman Group Interior Design, a high-end design firm in San Francisco, said that “almost every couple” he works with today requests an escape-space from snoring spouses.

When Ian Smith was a teenager, his mother converted the garage of her Carmel, Calif., home into his bedroom—decorated with a black rug, black bed sheets, drawn shades and 10 computers. A set of French doors led out to the street.

“I remember sneaking out—and sneaking people in,” said Mr. Smith, now a 31-year-old cybersecurity consultant living in Las Vegas. During his teenage cyber-punk-with-lip-ring phase, “I once sneaked in 15 people after a rave.”

Now, the space is a light, airy yoga studio, where his mother, Elizabeth Smith, says she held “goddess gatherings” and “new moon celebrations.” Here, friends would gather in a circle to speak about their aspirations for life in the coming lunar cycle.

Peter Dilsheimer and his mother, Barbara Eberlein, created an adult version of Peter’s childhood room in Philadelphia. ENLARGE
Peter Dilsheimer and his mother, Barbara Eberlein, created an adult version of Peter’s childhood room in Philadelphia. Photo: Will Figg for The Wall Street Journal

Needless to say, the loss of his dark computer cave was “painful,” Mr. Smith said.

Recently, Ms. Smith, a 60-year-old retired mortgage broker, put the house on the market with Sotheby’s International Realty for $939,000 and it is now under contract. When her real-estate agent brings families through the home, the teenagers are hooked when told about the yoga studio’s past life as a cyberpunk lair, Ms. Smith said.

Repurposed bedrooms can affect resale value—positively and negatively.

“If you could make a grand master suite—with bigger bathrooms and closets—and have three bedrooms left over, that could add value,” said Ron Shuffield, president of EWM Realty International, a Christie’s International Real Estate affiliate in Miami. But more personalized choices pose a marketing challenge.

Chris Christensen, owner of Regal Real Estate, an Orlando, Fla., Christie’s affiliate, said he has had two different listings—one at $1.75 million—in which a bedroom had been converted into a prayer room. Both sets of owners, originally from India, had laid tile floors and set up altars. He also recently marketed a home in which the owner had removed bedroom closets to set up shelves for sports memorabilia.

As a teen, Ian Smith, left, lived in the converted garage of his family’s Carmel, Calif., home. After he moved out, his mother, Elizabeth, made it into a yoga studio for ‘goddess gatherings.’ ENLARGE
As a teen, Ian Smith, left, lived in the converted garage of his family’s Carmel, Calif., home. After he moved out, his mother, Elizabeth, made it into a yoga studio for ‘goddess gatherings.’ Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
The Smith home—and yoga studio, shown—was recently listed for $939,000 and is now under contract. ENLARGE
The Smith home—and yoga studio, shown—was recently listed for $939,000 and is now under contract. Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

“The majority of buyers cannot imagine what a room could be,” Mr. Christensen said, adding that remodelers should consider leaving closets intact so rooms can be staged as bedrooms when it comes time to sell.

Darlene Javits, a 55-year-old attorney in Dix Hills, N.Y., is doing more than leaving a closet intact: She’s turning two bedrooms into a closet. A couple of years after her fiancé’s son moved out of the house, Ms. Javits began agitating to turn his former bedroom and his former computer room into her dream closet. Her fiancé, Charles Adams, 57, pushed back against the impracticality and expense. So she made a deal: If she could build the closet, he didn’t have to buy her a ring for their coming wedding.

“I don’t want a ring; I want a closet!” Ms. Javits said.

She hired L.A. Closet Design chief executive Lisa Adams, no relation to Mr. Adams, to create a walk-in closet with suede-lined custom cabinetry, a makeup vanity and a mirror that morphs into a television. The goal is to have her outfits grouped by color, with coordinating shoes and handbags within easy reach, said Ms. Javits, who plans to spend about $200,000 on the project.

Her stepson-to-be, now 26, lives in New York City and has his own life, Ms. Javits said. Should he ever want to return home, there are two guest rooms in the house he could choose from, she said. “For me, it’s our time, it’s our life and it’s our house,” said Ms. Javits. “I don’t really care if people are judging me.”

Barbara Eberlein found a way to sidestep the emotional issues. When her son, Peter Dilsheimer, was 19, she let him pick out his favorite fabrics, textures and furnishings and they worked together to create an adult version of his room.

The result was a sophisticated, masculine guest room with a leather chaise, camel-hair headboard, beamed ceiling and a new fireplace mantel, said Ms. Eberlein, an interior designer in Philadelphia. Today, Peter is 25, works in real-estate development and lives in his own Philadelphia apartment. Still, participating in the room’s design has given Mr. Dilsheimer a sense of connection to it that he has never lost, he said.

“I know it’s a guest room, but it will always be my room in my head,” said Mr. Dilsheimer.

Write to Katy McLaughlin at katy.mclaughlin@wsj.com

20 comments
Brian Charles
Brian Charles subscriber

These people are showing restraint.  I know of couples who have had the first coat of paint up as soon as the child backs out of the driveway to go to college.  


I came back at Thanksgiving of my freshman year to find that I no longer had a bedroom.  I was on a foldout in the living room.  I signed up for summer school shortly thereafter.  

Rodney Fitzpatrick
Rodney Fitzpatrick subscriber

It's a tough group today !!

She moved out -- came back with a husband.

Darren Thorneycroft
Darren Thorneycroft subscriber

OMG this has to be one of the most insipid articles I have ever read.


David Lenihan
David Lenihan subscriber

The best plan is to move....and not tell the kids where you have gone to.

SAMUEL DUKLEWSKI
SAMUEL DUKLEWSKI subscriber

If you think changing the room will prevent the kids from coming back, guess again. It won't stop them from coming back and then you'll have to find a space to put them.

Charles Lawrence
Charles Lawrence subscriber

@SAMUEL DUKLEWSKI - Donald Morrison, below, suggested giving them a tent in the backyard (to discourage them coming back) AND charging campground fees.

Greg Sutton
Greg Sutton subscriber

@SAMUEL DUKLEWSKI This is an issue for a speech therapy consult.  Put your tongue on top of your front teeth where they meet the roof of your mouth and say "NO".  You can to it.  Practice for a while so it rolls off your tongue.  It's to that hard.

Donald Morrison
Donald Morrison subscriber

Aside from all this expensive redecorating, it IS important to reclaim the space of grown children.  They are adults and it's time for them (and their parents)  to move on.  Adult children should regard themselves as guests in their parents' home.  Let them sleep on a pull-out sofa, but don't let them settle back in.  In the case of hardship, they can pitch a tent in the backyard and pay rent for the space and use of the house kitchen and bathroom.

Greg Sutton
Greg Sutton subscriber

@Donald Morrison Well said.  So many parents and kids get stuck in past, an Albatross around their necks.  If only more families could launch productive citizens.  That's what this is really about, not just the space.  

Ian Bird
Ian Bird subscriber

I'm thinking Terry Bradshaw in "Failure to Launch".

Donald Nemec
Donald Nemec subscriber

Anyone with a spare $50,000 to convert an unused bedroom probably smiles a lot. In the case of the interior designer, the new office is tax deductible and the furnishings (Apple hardware) can be capitalized for tax purposes.

Charles Lawrence
Charles Lawrence subscriber

We went with a "guest room" as well (currently have our very first "guest" there).  As for a "snore room", wouldn't Bose noise-canceling ear-plugs work (for much less expense)?

KIMBERLY GRIFFIN
KIMBERLY GRIFFIN subscriber

"Godless gatherings" and "new moon celebrations."  No surprise this is coming from CA.

Dan Laroque
Dan Laroque subscriber

Are they all rich people?  From the title I got the idea the kids were living in the hallways, then finally moved out.


It seems like the WSJ has lots of pictures of expensive Apple products.

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