ADU Accessory Dwelling Unit


Granny flats, mother-in-law apartments, secondary suites – whatever you call them, accessory dwelling units (or ADUs) have been getting attention recently. While ADUs have always been around (whether legally or illegally built), many Americans are adopting ADUs as a way to create multigenerational housing. An ADU can be a great solution for aging parents who want the independence of their own home, but need to be close to their caregivers.

ADUs can be basement living suites, over-the-garage suites, or smaller, freestanding structures. Whether they’re attached to the main residence or completely separate, all ADUs contain living spaces, a kitchen or kitchenette, at least one bedroom, a bathroom, and its own entrance. This keeps the ADU separate and independent from the main home. This provides privacy and a sense of aging in place for seniors used to living in their own home. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind if you’re considering adding an accessory dwelling unit to your property.

  1. Consider your family’s needs.

An ADU can be an affordable alternative to a retirement facility or nursing home. With some retirement homes costing about $6000 to $8000 a month, building a small addition or separate unit could seem like the cheaper option. Carefully consider how much care your parent needs, and if you’re capable of providing that care at home. Remember that ADUs don’t come with 24-hour professional care, so you may need to hire in-home care, either now or in the future.

  1. Keep it legal.

Zoning laws vary from state to state and even from city to city. To find the laws for your area, visit the zoning office with your block and lot number to find out if you’re allowed to build an ADU on your property. Even if zoning laws forbid ADUs, you may be able to get a variance – a formal request to deviate from the zoning requirements. Other states – like Virginia – allow you to build temporary medical dwellings on your property if you can show that the resident needs assistance with daily needs like dressing and bathing.

You will also need to obtain building permits and submit your structure to inspection. Zoning laws may also limit what your ADU can contain. For example, some laws forbid full kitchens because of fire hazards. Remember to check whether or not your homeowner’s insurance policy will cover an ADU.

  1. Attached or detached?

What you can build may depend on zoning laws and how big your lot is. If you can build one, a freestanding structure can give your parents their own home, but with the peace of mind of knowing you’re very close by. If your area doesn’t allow detached units, consider converting your basement or garage into a suite, or adding an extension onto your home. This option can cost less. Realtor.com estimates that adding an in-law suite to an existing home costs from about $32,000 to $63,000. Adding a separate structure can cost up to $125,000.

  1. ADUs can be versatile.

If your parents aren’t ready to move in yet, but you’re ready to build now, you can use the structure for a home office, a studio, a residence for an adult child or live-in nanny, or a guest house. Some areas even allow you to rent out the ADU to short or long term renters. And when you’re ready to sell your house, ADUs add value to your home. Consider keeping the floor plan open so future buyers can envision the space meeting their needs.

  1. Install technology.

When designing an ADU for an aging parent, take advantage of safety features like soft floor surfaces to protect against injury from falls, stair lifts, night lights, and safety rails. Look into other technology like remote cameras and medical monitoring, security features, and communication systems. Some innovative companies like MEDCottage and P.A.L.S. (Practical Assisted Living Structures) specialize in prefab freestanding ADUs especially for the elderly. A 12-by-24-foot MEDCottage costs about $85,000. A P.A.L.S. ADU starts at about $67,000; they also offer a 5-year lease option at about $1,700 a month.

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