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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

When a Kid Off to College Means Gaining a Bedroom

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Every year, the migration happens. Flocks of kids leave home for college. In the United States, more than 40 percent of new college students move away from home. And you know what that means?

Their parents gain a bedroom.

For Gina, who asked me not to use her last name, sending her only child away to college was bittersweet. While she missed having her home, being able to transform her daughter’s bedroom into a home office and private retreat took some of the sting away.

“I wanted to make her room into a place I could use without making her feel kicked out,” said Gina, who shares the two-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot home in Chelmsford, Mass., with her husband.

It’s a tricky transition.

She hired interior designer Debbe Daley, of Portsmouth, NH, to help. “Sending a kid off to college stirs up a lot of emotions for both parent and child,” said Daley, who has renovated several empty-nest bedrooms, including her own daughter’s.

“It’s a moment,” she said. “The kids go off, and the parents look at this unused space and wonder what to do with it. Leaving the room as it is can be a sad reminder of all the missed activity.”

I must butt in: Folks, homes aren’t museums. They need to change with the seasons of your life. Design your home to suit the life you have now, because living in the past robs you of the present, and ultimately of your future. You can’t move forward if you’re standing on the brake.

Back to Daley. “Look at the empty space and reassess how you want it to feel and function,” she said, adding that when her daughter went away to college, she turned the freed-up bedroom in her rural Massachusetts loft into a design studio. When her daughter came home on weekends, she slept in the five-foot-tall loft space overhead and used a library ladder to get to it.

“At first she had reservations,” said Daley, who outfitted the area with a bed, pendant lights and small bedside tables that floated off the wall. “But then she thought it was cool, like she was glamping.”

For another family whose son went off to college, Daley turned the boyish room into a posh guest room like you’d find in a New England B&B. The son loves it.

“Debbe came up with great ideas like removing the bed and putting in a Murphy bed to create space,” Gina said. The Murphy bed stays handsomely folded into the wall until her daughter comes home or a guest visits. This allowed them to add a desk, a bookcase, and seating, so Gina, a real estate agent, now has a workspace and a place to read or watch television.

But what did Gina’s daughter think?

“She was fine with it,” Gina said. “Her main concern was where her clothes were going to go.” (A girl after my own heart.)

Her clothes remain in the room’s closet. “Maybe down the road, when she is truly off on her own, I can use the closet for my stuff. I believe that will happen,” she said, adding with a laugh, “At least, I hope so!”

Whether you want to turn your off-to-college-kid’s bedroom into an office, a gym, a recording studio, a library, a craft room, a sauna, a greenhouse, or some other fantasy space, here’s some advice from those who’ve been there:

· Embrace the change. “If you do nothing, after a while the room becomes a weird time capsule,” said Daley, who encourages parents to see the transition as a new chapter in their lives, too. “Consider who you’re becoming now that your child has moved on, and how you might use this dormant space for that new you.”

· Don’t spring it on them. “You aren’t going to change my room are you?” Some kids ask. Talk about it. Involve them in the discussion. Say, “This is what we have planned. But don’t worry, you will always have a place here.” Then make sure they do, and that it’s not the family room couch. If they seem anxious, don’t rush it.

· Ask what matters to them most. Before you put their toy box and comic books on the curb, have them tell you what they want to keep (within reason), then figure out a way to temporarily store these belongings.

· Make rooms flexible. When repurposing a kid’s old bedroom, Daley often uses pullout couches. “You can find some really nice ones with end tables,” she said. Turning a wall closet into a workspace can be a plus for college kids coming home. Remove the closet door, install a dropdown desk, add an upper cabinet and an accent chair, and you can still have room on the other side for clothes.

· Wait a few months. Kids feel insecure enough when they go away to college without having their room commandeered. Coming home to what’s familiar can help them feel secure as they adapt to a new normal. Wait until after the first break before remodeling. “You can’t have them go off to college and come home for Thanksgiving and find they don’t have a place,” Daley said. Plus, 24 percent of freshmen don’t finish their first year of college, so there’s that. “You definitely don’t want to move and downsize until you’re sure they’re on their way.”

CAPTION: Not the sofa — Installing a built-in Murphy bed allows this former bedroom to double as an office and sitting room while still providing the owner’s daughter a place to sleep when she comes home from college on breaks. Photo courtesy of DebbeDaleyDesigns.

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Sep 11, 2023

We found it best to keep their rooms mostly untouched the first year while they lived in a dorm. They were home several times (2.5 hours away) and it helped ease them in transition. When they moved into an apartment, the bedroom furniture was then moved with them, leaving us an empty space to repurpose. When they turned 12-13, we bought them new bedroom sets to accommodate their adult size bodies and talked to them about future use in college and beyond. It worked well for us and them.

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