A new avenue for housing: Accessory dwellings

Aging in place, caregivers, working from home, boomerang millennials…

With all these trends coinciding at once we are rapidly approaching a new era in suburban living.

At New Avenue Homes, we’ve conducted research regarding unmet housing needs and found that 30% of homeowners have an interest in an accessory dwelling, or secondary houses that share a lot with the primary residence. Surprisingly, half of the interested respondents tried to start an accessory dwelling project and failed, while the other half presumed they could not get permits.

We have dedicated a lot of effort to the trend of accessory dwellings because we believe that if we help with the process of designing, permitting and building them, then they will play a pivotal role in the future of housing in America. There is proof that this trend is real, since 32% of our projects are accessory dwellings. The rest are new homes, additions, remodels and detached offices.

Baby Boomers & Millennials Redefining Housing Needs

Eighty percent of our clients are 50+ years old, making them part of the 80 million baby boomer population. With many boomers planning to age in place, there is a clear need to modify their homes for safety. Add in the demographic changes with millennials moving home and multigenerational living expanding, and our existing homes are facing a future demand that goes far beyond their original intent of raising a family.

Judy’s Accessory Dwelling:

One example of an accessory dwelling is Judy W., in Albany, California. She built an accessory dwelling that is 442 square feet. This cottage is part of a larger plan for her growing family as it allows Judy to share her home with her daughter and grandkids.

Together these three generations will share two homes on one lot, which has been in the family for nearly 40 years now.

They want to stay in this home as it is in a great neighborhood. It is near a local subway/BART station, as well as little shops, a grocery store and other conveniences. In a few years, the Albany school district will be a big benefit for the grandkids, too.

The home has a number of adaptable design standards such as a low threshold entry that can easily become wheelchair accessible, flush floors throughout, including in the bathroom, grab bars and a bench in the shower, a small kitchen, indoor air circulation and non-toxic materials.

Bruce and Janet in San Jose, California:

Bruce and Janet live in San Jose and analyzed the cost of an assisted living facility nearby for his parents. With financing, their costs for an accessory dwelling were a small fraction of assisted living, and they quickly decided to build one for their parents.

This project is still in design. They own almost an acre of land so space is not an issue. The design is a 700 square foot, two-bedroom home with a huge porch, private driveway and two-car garage. The details for this project are far from tantalizing but they are arguably lifesavers in the long run. Details include grab bar blocking and low threshold transitions such as these details:

When it comes to designing, permitting and building accessory dwellings, we have found several persistent problems and misconceptions:

1) Misinformation: Many owners assume permits are impossible. In fact, 15% of our initial survey respondents incorrectly said, “I know I can’t get permits for an accessory dwelling,” when they were actually allowed to do so. There is a need for re-education as the rules have changed in many cities.

2) Permits take too long: With some cities having planning permits that take six months and building permits that take another four months, people can be at their wit’s end before they even break ground. At New Avenue we process all payments for clients, and that allows us to track permit times and costs across all projects. This lets us analyze data across a large number of projects and present accurate timelines to new clients and architects so they can set their expectations accordingly.

3) There are too many permits and they cost too much:The collection of planning fees, impact fees and building permits, especially in metro areas is too complex for an average person to figure out. Therefore they require an architect’s expertise. Unfortunately many owners try to figure this out on their own and they give up due to a lack of experience navigating the city process.

4) Hiring an Architect or Contractor is Difficult: Few people know how to talk to an architect or contractor. We share average architect time ranging from 100-200 hours to design a home, get permits, manage the sub-consultants and perform construction administration. The range in architect time is driven by the type of project and location. We have found that listing each step along the way provides a clarity that reduces the rate of people saying “$20,000? I can buy plans for $400 on the internet.”

4) Costs vary wildly: It is not uncommon for an $80,000 project to receive a bid from someone that is $200,000+. At New Avenue we open up our database of over 100 projects to show owners, architects and contractors what comparable projects have cost so at least you have a line in the stand to work from.  

5) Shortsightedness: Owners often overlook some of the fundamental reasons for creating a space for aging in place. It’s so much easier to focus on floors and finishes than to acknowledge grab bars, ramps, railings and wheelchair access. We are providing a detailed library to at least expose owners to the concepts as early as possible.

By solving some of the problems listed here we hope to get people past their fear of starting a project so we can make an impact on a national level. We now work with 55 architects and contractors and have 3,500 projects in design, but we have millions of homes to go.  

About the Author

Kevin Casey is the founder and CEO of newavenuehomes.com. New Avenue's mission is to transform every home for multigenerational, shared living. He obtained an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, was a Fulbright Scholar in economic development, and holds a B.A. in Economics and Anthropology from Fordham University.

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