A True ADU Horror Story (and how to avoid one)

First off, we talk to lots of homeowners who are looking to build an ADU. In fact, Acton ADU periodically hears from homeowners that have already started…and haven’t had a great experience on their ADU project. Actually, now that I think about it, periodically might not be accurate. In reality, we hear ADU horror stories almost every day and in many cases it’s too late for us to help.

From taking two years to get a permit, warranty nightmares, to shoddy half-complete ADU skeletons…the two things that connect every nightmare story we hear are: lack of proven experience and poorly set expectations for cost.

Take the Moore family (name changed for privacy reasons). Linda Moore reached out to Acton ADU just about 18 months ago to see if we’d be a good fit. Linda needed to build an ADU in short order to help her aging father day to day, and ultimately decided investing in an ADU was the best possible option for her and her family. Linda had set aside a budget, done her homework on her property, and wanted to get started right away–but was concerned about budget and the permitting timeline. However, based on certain restrictions, like lot size and shape, as well as some pre-existing structures, we weren’t confident that the project would be successful for her budget or timeline.

In short, Acton ADU wasn’t a good fit for Linda (and that’s okay!). She decided to work with another builder who promised her that the budget and timeline would be doable. Everything was lining up and we wished her the best. But about 18 months later, we got the call…

Linda is seriously concerned about her project, which had taken nearly 12 months to break ground after struggling to develop a permit-ready plan that accommodated her property’s restrictions. To give you a sense of how long that is, we’d completed 4 ADU projects (end-to-end) in the same span of time in San Jose. But back to Linda…to make matters worse, she was 35% over her expected budget, which would have been less of a problem for her had she planned for it in the beginning. Ultimately, Linda was reaching out for help. Could Acton take over the project and clear things up? Her builder had only ever built a few ADUs previous to hers and had lost money doing so. Now they were in a tight spot and couldn’t continue the work. But the hard truth was…aside from making a few strategic suggestions on how to handle a haywire project…We were booked with current customers, there was no place in the schedule, and we lacked confidence in the ADU design (and cost) she’d made.

So, the moral of the story is this: If you’re seriously considering building a backyard house, be sure that you’ve got a lot of confidence in the designer’s understanding of city codes, the builder’s understanding of real costs, and the builder’s experience with the unique challenges in building an ADU. ADUs are on the rise, and so more and more folks are looking to capitalize on the demand. And why not? ADUs are great investments that bring a ton of value to properties. From keeping loved ones close and comfortable to expanding the utility and value of your home long-term, accessory dwelling units are making a substantially positive impact on homeowners and their families.

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