Lisa A. Flam
Start with amenities like a monster TV or fire pit, add a never-ending supply of munchies and a relaxed attitude toward your kids bringing home a friend — or five — and you may just find that your place has become THE place where the tweens and teens want to be.
A hangout house is often the first spot kids think to gather to work on a school project or binge on the latest Xbox game or silly YouTube videos.
"There are some houses that are sort of like magnetic," says Dana Points, editor-in-chief of Parents magazine. "A hangout house is well-stocked, welcoming, casually decorated and not too fussy, and where there's an adult present, but on the periphery."
Sure, with more kids around you can count on some extra cleanup or home repairs, a louder-than-usual roar, and the expense of keeping kids in chips, cookies and (maybe even) baby carrots.
But parents who open their doors to the masses say the upsides are being able to keep tabs on their kids, getting to know their friends well and gaining a peek into their tender worlds.
"I have girls, so it's very important to have them here," said Tammy Smith, 48. "I felt safer with them being here. The best way to keep your kids and their friends where you can see them is to own a pool and a pool house."
Seven years ago, she and her husband built an 8,000-square-foot home on nearly 13 acres in Trussville, Alabama, so they would have room for a heated pool and hot tub. After Friday night high school football games, her daughters would often pile in with eight or nine girls (plus boys who were eventually sent home) for a swim or sleepover. Besides swimming, the kids could play ping pong, pool or video games.
Two years ago, the Smiths added a $115,000 open-air pool house, decked out with fireplace, large TV, refrigerator, two grills and couches, to make the pool area attractive year-round.
"It's nice to know they're safe because they're outside with music on, plenty of food and drink versus a movie theatre parking lot," Smith said, adding that now, at ages 19 and 24, her daughters still regularly invite friends over.
Another hangout-house parent, Jeff Kasky, says it's not necessarily what's in his five-bedroom home that makes it a draw; it's his relaxed yet not overly permissive approach.
A father of boys ages 12, 13 and 16, Kasky resides on a kid-filled cul-de-sac in a gated community in Delray Beach, Florida, with his fiancee, who has a 7-year-old daughter. The four kids enjoy having friends over, especially the two older boys.
Kids play on gaming systems or watch football on the 120-inch, high-definition TV with surround sound, enjoy the fire pit, practice musical instruments and "just lie all over the place" on couches and recliners.
"They know when they come over to our house, there's no pretense," Kasky says. "They can just have a good time. It's good, clean fun."
Since Kasky is, in his own words, a "fairly immature 46-year-old," he gives his kids leeway to get a little rowdy as long as the antics stay positive.
"I'm not going to tell them to keep their voice down for no reason," he said.
Supervision is crucial during the teen years, when kids may try to sneak sips of a Bud when the lights are low during a movie. Parents can subtly remind kids of their presence by throwing in a load of laundry or offering snacks.
"There are parents who, in order to be the cool house, have had to relax that rule and say as long as you are in the house you can have a drink," Kasky said. "That's not acceptable to me for teenagers."
Samantha Leggat describes her home in Livermore, California, as a playground, with lots of activities for kids, like skateboarding or playing Xbox or Wii.
Sometimes, when it's just her boys, ages 12 and 14, they can't figure out what to do — until a friend comes over. That's how Leggat prefers it, so she knows they're not making bad choices or in an unsupervised home.
"I'd rather they be here than anywhere else because I can be the parental person keeping an ear out," says Leggat, 48. "I'm never hovering over them. I get to know the kids and be providing them with all the things they need."
Leggat likes the energy of having people around and says the noise doesn't bother her.
Smith felt the same way, though her husband was a little less tolerant of the floating pizza crusts and cookies that forced them to drain and clean the hot tub several times, or of the late-night laughter.
"I always thought it was a pleasant feeling, lying in bed and you heard all the giggling," Smith said.
Having a hangout house is not for everyone.
"Not everybody enjoys their teenager," Smith said. "You've got to want to be around them and be easygoing and still set the rules."
Many parents who want their house to be the cool house can't make it happen, try as they might.
"You might have a formula, but there's some magical piece," Points says, a "secret sauce" that's intangible, yet needed to have a house full of other people's kids.