You can go home again

Some adults buy the house they grew up in

Rhonda Fien Stangrover can't ignore the memories. Everything in the home she and her husband, Mick, own in Alamo, Calif., near San Francisco, reminds her of her childhood: the kitchen countertops, the fixtures in the bathrooms, the paper on the walls, the way the kitchen drawer squeaks when Mrs. Stangrover reaches for a fork or a spoon.

This isn't surprising; she purchased her former childhood home in 2000 from her mother, Ana Fien, a widow.

Mrs. Fien now lives in a town house, a sensible move for her, but one she resisted until finding the right buyer for the home in which she and her husband raised their family.

It's a house that the Stangrovers - Rhonda, a stay-at-home mom, and Mick, a construction worker - never could have afforded to buy at inflated San Francisco-area prices. Instead, Mrs. Fein gave them a good deal on the property.

Rhonda says she has no regrets about their decision to purchase the 1957 ranch house in which she grew up. But she does get the occasional feeling that the home still belongs to her mother, not to her.

"I don't know if it's different for a man than it is for a woman, but I want to put my own touch on this house," she says. "That's something that I haven't really done yet. For the most part, everything here is the same as it was when I was a child. The drapes in our bedroom are the same drapes that my parents had. I don't know how they're hanging on. I live in my house exactly like it was [when I was] a child."

Soon that will change. The Stangrovers are planning a major remodeling project, one that will bring them a larger kitchen, new roof, master bedroom, master bathroom, and extensive landscaping.

But even with this work, Stangrover expects constant reminders of her childhood.

"My son learned to walk on the same floor that I learned to walk on," she says. "My kids took a bath in the same bathtub that I took baths in. You don't realize how fast life goes by. You see your kids playing in the house, and you can't help but think back to when you were playing in the same room. I think even when the remodeling is done, those feelings will remain."

It's hard to know how many home buyers follow Stangrover's path by purchasing their former childhood homes. No one keeps statistics on such purchases, and because these transactions are usually between parents and their adult children, real estate agents are rarely involved.

The fact that such purchases do exist, though, is no surprise. After all, parents are more likely to give their children a break on the sale price, and they're not likely to hide potential problems. At the same time, buyers know firsthand about the neighborhood, schools, parks, and shopping districts surrounding the home.

This doesn't mean that such transactions come without any of the stress typically associated with buying real estate.

In fact, these buyers often find problems unique to these purchases. Their parents' homes may have outdated electrical systems and plumbing. The bedrooms may be small. Closet space might be limited.

Some people buy their former childhood homes seeking the nostalgic feelings of their youth, only to find the annoyances of drafty windows and closetless rooms.

Just ask Seymour Turner, vice president of AIROOM, an architecture and building company located in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. Homeowners have called on him to renovate the homes they purchased from their parents.

"When people think of moving back to their homes, they think of that tree in the backyard they used to climb," Mr. Turner says. "They tend to forget about the other things. They don't think of everyone waiting in line to use the bathroom because the house only has one bath. They don't remember that their parents used a lobby as a third bedroom. What they find is that often things are dated, both functionally and aesthetically."

Scott Sevon, president of Sevvonco Builders in Palatine, Ill., has tackled several remodeling projects for homeowners who purchased the houses in which they spent their younger years. Most want to enlarge the kitchens, bathrooms, and master bedrooms. Many also seek to improve the energy efficiency of their parents' homes, which may have drafty windows and doors.

Despite these potential obstacles, Buddy and Sharon Wren don't regret buying the home in which Buddy grew up. The home, located on Campbell's Island, Ill., has served as the Wrens' home since 1999, and they expect to live here for a long time.

And no wonder. Campbell's Island is in the Mississippi River, and the Wrens can fish, boat, and kayak right from their yard.

"It's great keeping the house in the family, and the location is unbelievable," Sharon says. "We have made some changes. We've put in a lot of landscaping - rosebushes, apple trees, flower beds. We needed a bigger house because we were starting a family. Part of the appeal was raising our children in the house built by their great-grandfather. He built it for his own family, so it's well constructed."

The only challenges the Wrens have faced have nothing to do with it being Buddy's childhood home.

Campbell's Island suffers serious floods about every six to eight years. The Wrens' home is never in danger because it sits on the highest part of the island, but its basement still fills with water and the well gets contaminated. When that happens, they have to haul in outside water for drinking and cooking.

Then there are the critters the floodwater brings in.

"The garter snakes in the basement the last time we flooded weren't fun for me because I hate snakes," Sharon says. "But I didn't mind the frogs."

Paul and Donna Marrin purchased Paul's childhood home in Scarborough, Ontario (now part of Toronto), from his mother in 1985. The couple lived there for eight years before moving north to a better school district for their daughter.

Before buying the house, the Marrins were saving for a down payment. Paul's mother, though, offered her son the home for what he describes as an incredible price.

"The best aspect was the familiarity with my neighbors," Paul says. "And I most enjoyed that a lot of my long-time friends still lived close by. I knew all the structural history of the house. I knew that my parents had always kept every area of the house in top shape, so I knew I wasn't paying for something that was going to be a disappointment later on."

Even with these positives, Paul still had a few disappointments. "There wasn't the excitement that I would imagine with buying your first house," he says. "It didn't feel like it was new to me. There were no surprises, nothing to be discovered. Also, ... so many memories of family members who were long gone would pop into my head while I lived there."

Paul's wife, Donna, noticed other problems.

"Nearly all the people who lived on our street were seniors," she says. "Because they'd seen my husband growing up, he felt that they still treated him like a little boy.... They would stop by all the time and point out things that needed to be done, and stuff like that. Because of the fact that his family was well-known by the neighbors, they quite often infringed on our privacy."

There's one other potential problem buyers face when living in their parents' home: They might find themselves becoming more and more like their mom and dad.

"I have a sister who lives nearby," said Stangrover. "She loves coming over here. One time I was walking through the kitchen area in a pair of slippers, just like my mom used to do. I remember my sister saying, 'You sound like Mom. With the slippers and the way you're talking, you've become Mom.' It's kind of cute."

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