Accessory Dwelling Units -- for In-Laws etc.

By Joyanna Laughlin

This 2 bedroom 1 bath backyard cottage tucks into a slope.

Thinking about adding an in-law unit, granny flat or carriage house to your property as home for an aging parent or as a rental unit to generate additional income? You’re not alone. More and more homeowners are remodeling the basement, adding an apartment over the garage or building a backyard cottage, and some cities are even making the process easier.
The backyard cottage shown above is Plan 890-3. Here's the floor plan showing the upper, living level.

The backyard cottage below is Plan 890-1.

And here is the floor plan showing the open living area and the two bedrooms.


Why ADUs Make Sense

An aging baby boomer population, a challenging economy, and a lack of affordable housing are just a few of the reasons that accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are becoming more popular. According to the fall 2012 issue of The Appraisal Journal, an ADU is “a small, self-contained dwelling, typically with its own entrance, cooking and bathing facilities, that shares the site of a single-unit dwelling.” ADUs can be attached (a converted garage or basement) or unattached (a backyard cottage or carriage house).  There are a number of benefits to adding an in-law unit to your property, according to Michael Litchfield, author of the book In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House Into Two Homes. Benefits include increased economic security through rental unit income, the ability to offer a nearby place to live to an aging parent, the opportunity to buy a house you might not otherwise be able to afford, flexibility to travel while your tenant watches the property, shortening your commute by using the ADU as a home office, and building a green, energy efficient space.

Challenges include neighbors, costs
In February 2013 the Raleigh, North Carolina, city council voted down a proposal to allow in-law units after the city’s planning department had endorsed a change to allow the cottages in 2012. Across the country, objections to allowing in-law units include neighbors’ concerns about parking, increased traffic, overcrowding and the impact on the look and character of neighborhoods.  In addition, getting a permit for a granny flat can be challenging given requirements governing parking spaces, minimum lot sizes and setbacks among other things. Some homeowners get frustrated with the requirements and costs and build an in-law unit without a permit (called an outlaw). Lichfield thinks that the majority of in-law units around the country may be illegal due to the costs and time involved in getting permits. In April 2014, San Francisco tried to address this problem when the city’s board of supervisors voted to let property owners voluntarily apply to legalize outlaw units built before January 1, 2013.

7 Tips for Adding an In-Law Unit
Forward-thinking cities across the country are changing zoning requirements to make it easier to legally build an ADU. Some of these cities include Santa Cruz, California; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Denver; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Minneapolis is considering approving ADUs throughout the city.

If you are considering getting a permit for in-law unit, here are seven suggestions to help you navigate the process.

1. Search your city’s website to see if accessory dwelling units are allowed and read the information posted about getting an ADU approved.
2. Study your neighborhood and lot closely to see if a granny flat is workable.
3. Research sources of financing.
4. If you live in an area where a public hearing is required for approval of your project, consider hiring a general contractor to guide your project through the process and work to get your neighbors onboard with the idea.
5. Have a lawyer to review contracts before you sign them.
6. Meet with a city planner to get an idea of what the planning department looks for when approving projects. Don’t offer planners extraneous information that they don’t ask for.
7. Follow the planning department’s submittal list item by item and make sure that your documents are complete before submitting them.

If you follow these tips and do your homework, getting a permit and building an in-law unit can go smoothly. And the investment can pay off handsomely when you’re able to offer a safe, comfortable and legal home to your mom or dad or enjoy the increased financial security from rental income.

To see a collection of Backyard Cottages -- also called Granny Units -- click here.

08/04/2014