Monday, October 10, 2011

In California, a backyard cottage industry: universally designed space for aging parents

From The San Francisco Chronicle. In the picture, Billie McKig, 87, sold her large San Diego home and moved into the 540-square-foot cottage, above, her daughter built for her in the backyard of her Berkeley home.

Bay Area author and home renovation expert Michael Litchfield didn't just write a book on in-law units - he lives in one himself.

"I like the idea of shared spaces," says Litchfield, who occupies an in-law on a scenic former dairy farm above Tomales Bay. "One of the curses of our time is that we're too isolated."

Litchfield's new book, "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes" (Taunton Press, $24.95), examines the growing trend of homeowners adding in-law apartments, cottages, flats and suites (also known as accessory dwelling units) to their property. From couples wanting an affordable and dignified space for aging parents to homeowners looking for rental income to help pay their bills or provide adult children a safe landing between jobs, the uncertain times and unforeseen curveballs of life - divorce, death, unemployment - have families rethinking their current and future housing needs.

According to a survey last year by the National Association of Home Builders, 68 percent of the builders who responded said they were working on a home remodeling project related to aging. Diann Patton, a Consumer Specialist for Coldwell Banker Real Estate, says their most recent survey last year found that 37 percent of sales professionals noticed an increase in home buyers looking for a property to accommodate more than one generation of their family. The AARP Public Policy Institute recently confirmed multigenerational homes are on the rise in the United States, reporting there were roughly one-half million more households that were multigenerational in 2010 than in 2009, and that in the past two years, the number of multigenerational households grew faster than in any other two-year period since 2000, coinciding largely with the recession of the past few years.

Architect Jon Larson of Jarvis Architects in Oakland - a firm that has three projects featured in Litchfield's book - believes interest in in-law units reflects homeowners' concerns about the up-and-down economy and real estate market. "It's a sign of the times," he says. "People are fixing up what they have, and we're trying to work within the existing structure whenever we can."

Larson says you don't necessarily need lots of extra square footage for an inviting in-law unit. The smallest unit in Litchfield's book is a backyard cottage that measures 269 square feet.

"It can feel spacious without being as physically large as other spaces in the home," he says. "Higher ceilings, tall doors and high windows can improve the quality of living in the space. Including adjacent landscape as part of the space with large French doors can make the unit feel larger, comfortable and accessible to the outdoors. You always want to include as much natural light as possible."

Larson adds that many of these design details can make an in-law not only more comfortable but also eco-friendly.

"Sustainability has come up at a great time with the economy - you don't have as much space to heat," he points out. "And things that work for universal design work for everyone."

In the book, Litchfield explains universal design attempts to create spaces that are accessible and usable to the greatest number of people, regardless of age or physical condition.

Grab bars for the bathroom, wider entrances for wheelchair access and levers instead of knobs on the doors are always a good idea for an in-law unit, making the space suitable for young children, aging Baby Boomers or seniors with limited mobility. A user-friendly in-law unit also allows older homeowners to stay in the neighborhood they love. Some even choose to build an in-law unit for themselves and rent out their main home when it starts to feel too large or too difficult to maintain or maneuver. While a remodel or addition can make the cost of an in-law prohibitive for some homeowners, it can be less expensive than the money required for long-term care for aging relatives in a facility - and a potential source of income down the road. Litchfield says he just doesn't see too many drawbacks to the in-law concept.

"It's like any human relationship - it involves adjustments and compromises," he says. "I think learning to get along with people is very useful."

But you also need to do your homework to avoid making some common mistakes.

"Know your local building codes," says Litchfield. "It's easy to do. Call up your local planning department and identify your parcel. Go in and talk with them about what you want to do and be clear why you're doing it."

Laws vary by city, so clearing your plans with local building authorities saves you the headaches and safety issues of having an "outlaw" unit on your property. And know yourself, suggests Litchfield.

"If you're a person who enjoys other people and are flexible, there are lots of pluses," he says. "If you're a control freak or have had lots of problems with your neighbors in the past, think before you consider such a project."

You also don't want to surprise your neighbors with the new project. If you're considering adding an in-law unit, involve them before construction begins.

"You want to avoid disagreements down the line," stresses Litchfield. "Have a wine and cheese party with your architect and neighbors and show them what you plan to do."

Litchfield believes those who plan to rent their in-law unit should find someone who shares a similar lifestyle ("if you're an elderly person who values your quiet, you don't want to rent to a rock musician"). He also suggests checking out the prevailing rent in your area and backing off 10 percent - this helps enlarge the pool of potential renters and allows you to be more picky. Find out if separate mail addresses are needed, who handles yard work and other issues that come up when sharing a property.

With the right planning and attitude, an in-law unit can benefit all involved, he says. "This trend will continue because the number of multigenerational houses will increase," Litchfield says. "Houses have to change because our lives change."