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Ask the Architect: What Should I Know About Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)?

Ask the Architect: What Should I Know About Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)?

I’ve been an architect for many years now, but recently, my architecture firm has seen an uptick in requests for accessory dwelling unit (ADU) design. If you’re not familiar with ADUs, an ADU is an independent residential unit that is built on the same lot as a single-family home. Some people call them mother-in-law units or granny flats, since they are often used as dwellings for aging family members who need to be near family. However, increasingly, they are being used as rental units.

ADUs can be attached or detached. In California, where my architecture firm is located, there are some elements that every ADU must include, such as a separate entrance, at least a ¾ bathroom, and a kitchen. The living area must be 150 square feet or more. If an ADU is larger than 750 square feet, impact fees apply, so ADUs in California are generally less than 750 square feet.

In my area of Long Beach, California, ADUs are very popular projects right now. Actually, throughout California, they are very popular. The government has actually made it easier to get these types of projects approved, in an effort to increase the supply of affordable housing in the state. And with soaring rental prices, many homeowners are seeing ADUs as a great investment. Building an ADU can bring in a good amount of monthly income to homeowners, and it can also increase the value of their property.

ADUs as Investments

If you’re a homeowner who is looking at an ADU as purely an investment to make some side income, there are some important factors to consider. First of all, you need to do some research about the types of rentals that are allowed in your area. For example, in some of the areas near me, ADUs are not allowed to be used as short-term rentals. Do your research before building your ADU if your plan is to make money in the short-term rental market. Check with local officials in your neighborhood, city, or county to see if there is any talk of restricting short-term rentals (if there aren’t already rules in place restricting them).

You should also take into consideration who will likely be renting out your ADU. If you live in a college town, you’ll want to think about what young, single people will be looking for in a living space. You’ll also want to consider what features a typical college student wouldn’t care about (and therefore wouldn’t want to pay extra for), such as a bathtub, a gourmet kitchen, or a spacious bedroom. You’ll want to focus more on things like durable materials (flooring, cabinets, etc.) that will last through frequent tenant turnovers. If your likely tenants will be older, retired couples, you may want to think about adding ADA-compliant features. If there are a lot of young families in your area, a small second bedroom would be a valuable addition.

No matter who your target rental market it, you should always keep in mind ways to provide privacy for both yourself and your tenants. Consider how your tenants will access their unit. You probably don’t want them walking by your home’s main living space every time they come or go. If you provide your tenants with outdoor space, you may also want to erect some sort of barrier between that area and the main house.

Hiring an Architect to Help You with Your ADU

Designing an ADU may seem like a simple project, but hiring an architect is highly advised. An architect can help you get the most out of your space, so you can garner a larger rental amount, and therefore improve your ROI. He or she will also take into account some factors you may not have considered. Specifically, a talented architect will make sure your ADU matches or complements the style of the main house, so it doesn’t look like an afterthought. An architect can help you get your ADU plans approved by the city and make any changes they require (typically faster than you could do on your own, allowing you to start earning rental income sooner). Finally, an architect can work with your general contractor to ensure your vision for your ADU is fully carried out.

Yes, hiring an architect is an added expense, but a good architect can be a valuable partner in this type of investment.

Do you have a question for the architect that you’d like to see answered in this column? Send it here and you may see the answer in a future column.


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by Mark Grisafe // Mark Grisafe is the Owner and Lead Architect at Grisafe Architecture. He's known throughout Long Beach as a talented architect who creates spaces that are not only beautiful, but also highly functional.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.