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Should I Live in the House I Inherited?

Should I Live in the House I Inherited?
Photo credit: Andrew Frasz

“I inherited my childhood home.”

There’s a whirlwind of intense, complex emotions within those five words.

For some people, their childhood home evokes mostly happy memories, but now also grief and loss. For others, those earlier happy memories are eclipsed by later images of illness. And for people who had complicated or difficult relationships with their parents, a childhood home may be the last place they’d ever want to return.

These emotions can affect the choice of whether to live in an inherited home, or sell or lease it instead. There are many other factors to consider too, and often living in an inherited home is not even a viable option. Adult children and their families may be happily established across the country, or the house may be ancient and in disrepair, or the sibling interested in the house may not be able to afford the mortgage required to buy the other(s) out.

But let’s assume living in the childhood home is a viable option. What changes should people consider making so the home serves their needs? How do you make room for new memories? In other words, how can you ensure a childhood home grows up?

To answer this question, I spoke with someone whose viewpoint is sometimes overlooked in the world of inheritance professionals. Interior designer Tobi Wright, of InsideWright LLC, has helped clients put their personal stamp on inherited homes, and also completely redesigned her own inherited apartment.

Bracha: Would you share your personal story with us?

Tobi: Sure. My parents moved us from Ohio to New York in 1978. Back then, there was no such thing as renovating apartments for new tenants. Our “new” home was really depressing: horizontal blinds falling off the windows, bare bulbs in ceiling sockets, and a tattered linoleum kitchen floor. It was so different from our home in Ohio that we actually cried on first sight.

But my dad was an artist and over time, he made the apartment beautiful – always in his own unique way. For example, he painted the whole apartment in a rainbow of gray when color was all the rage.

Skipping to 2006, my father had passed and my mother was ready to retire and move. So in my mid to late thirties, I lived with my mom for two years in order to legally have the lease transferred to me. Living with your parents is not always an easy road at that age, but for Manhattan apartments, sacrifices must be made!

My mother had added color to the walls over the years, but eventually I repainted everything, mostly following feng shui recommendations. I also built custom DIY furniture to fit my rooms. And after missing my ex’s back yard, my living room became one – complete with faux grass!

Bracha: Wow, what an amazing transformation into a home that perfectly fits you. But I imagine some people would find that difficult.

Tobi: Yes, I have a neighbor whose son died young, and she left his room intact for many years.

Bracha: I understand that – moving his belongings is a physical expression of letting go. This reminds of a friend who is dating a widower still living in his marital home. She wanted to respect his memories of his wife, but also her own needs. So my friend told him that once he was ready to move his wife’s belongings out of the nightstand, she would begin staying over. And that’s exactly what they did.

What other challenges can inherited homes pose, in your experience?

Tobi: Inherited homes may have a foundation of stagnancy. For example, I did a styling consultation for a young couple in Manhattan. The wife shared that the apartment was the husband’s childhood home, and despite being a really successful lawyer, living there and raising his kids there actually left him feeling a lack of accomplishment.

To break free of that stagnancy, some people completely replace the furniture. I did a space planning consultation for someone with gorgeous mid-century furniture (which is back in vogue). It was in excellent condition, but it held too many memories of her childhood. I advised her to reach out to a neighborhood antiques dealer.

Bracha: How do you navigate working with clients who lost someone you also knew?

Tobi: I make sure we pause and acknowledge the person’s absence first when we meet. This happened recently with a neighbor whose husband had died. When I arrived, she was ready to launch into the changes she was planning. I acknowledged his absence first though, and we talked about his final days and how she’s been coping. Then we got into the design.

He was a photographer and they’d had a really wonderful relationship. She wanted to memorialize him by keeping his photos on the walls, but also make the apartment more her own.

Bracha: That sounds like a balance to aspire to. Thank you, Tobi – your guidance will help me better support my clients.

Tobi: You’re very welcome.

Please note that while an estate is undergoing probate, there are restrictions on disposing of or distributing property. Consult a qualified New York probate attorney for guidance.

Tobi Wright, founder of InsideWright LLC, has a background in advertising, branding, and bodywork. InsideWright approaches interiors with an eye to identity and wellbeing. In both residential and commercial projects, InsideWright creates environments that promote productivity, harmony and pride. Tobi’s comfort with color results in curated environments that are simultaneously striking yet serene, and she’s always happy to include an element of playfulness. To learn more, please visit Home – InsideWright.  

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