While a city exodus is one of many pandemic-driven housing trends, at the other end of the spectrum are millions whose living arrangements have been upended due to job loss, closed college dorms, fear of nursing homes or a need to live near loved ones.
Those motives have fueled another trend: the rise of the Accessory Dwelling Unit.
Also known as granny flats, casitas, guest houses, pool homes or caretaker quarters, ADUs are, by definition, second, smaller homes on the same property as a main house. They can be separate from the house or attached, but they will have a kitchen, bathroom and an outside entrance.
“It has to be a fully functioning little house where someone can prepare basic food and shower,” said architect Mary Maydan, who has designed five finished ADUs and has four on the drawing board at her firm Maydan Architects. Many also will have separate utility lines and a dedicated parking place.
Though such living quarters have been around for almost as long as homes themselves, what has changed is that ADUs are hot properties today.
Largely in response to the pandemic, cities have begun to relax rules that used to bar ADUs, especially in expensive housing markets that have limited inventory.
“A year ago, almost no one knew what an ADU was,” Maydan said. “Now everyone does. They are popping up everywhere, helping with the home shortage and providing that instant extra space families have needed.”
Before last year, only about 10% of her residential clients wanted to include an ADU in their home plans; today that number is more than 50%, said Maydan, who built an ADU on her property in 2004 for her parents to live in.
Besides offering more independent living space for aging parents or boomerang kids, ADUs also can be revenue-producing rentals, or make great home offices and gyms. For some, they offer a sort of decompression space, which we’ve all needed this past year.
Whatever the purpose, an ADU’s beauty lies in the fact that it is separate but near.
If you’re interested in creating one where you live, here’s what to know:
• Check first. Although ADUs are gaining favor among cities, be sure to ask your zoning department about restrictions in your area. “Don’t go by what your friend tells you he did,” real estate appraiser Corina Rollins said. “You need to check with your city.”
• Know your options. Those looking to add an ADU can either convert existing space such as a garage, attic or basement, or build a new structure. Traditional construction (called stick built) is one option, but putting up a prefabricated ADU is also popular. Prefab ADUs cost less, but because they aren’t custom, they don’t always go with the main house’s architecture. A third option just coming to the market is the 3D-printed ADU.
• Tie it to the house. Maydan encourages homeowners to make sure the ADU doesn’t look like an afterthought even if it is. Connect it visually to the main house through architectural design or simply by adding steppingstones between the houses. For one homeowner, Maydan retrofitted a prefab ADU to better integrate it architecturally with the main house.
• Make it multipurpose. “The beauty of a well-conceived ADU is that you can build it and find, as your life flows along, the ADU serves different needs,” Rollins said. “What serves as your home office today may become a house for your child as he or she transitions from college to career, and later for your aging parents, and after that it might become an income-producing rental.”
• Move in yourself. ADUs can help aging homeowners who don’t want to move or sell their homes. If they move into the ADU on their property, they can rent out the main house to a family who needs the space. This lets the owners age in place and earn an income.
• Know your market. While some studies have shown that homes with ADUs have been selling far faster during the pandemic than those without, whether you will recoup your investment depends on many variables, Rollins said. The initial cost and quality, visual appeal, ability to be an income property, and the demand in your area all factor in.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books. Reach her at marnijameson.com.