When money is tight or someone needs help, families come together. When a relative has special needs or needs extra care as they age, that safety net kicks in. The difference is that for those with special needs or limited income, housing and care options may be limited to what they can afford.

That’s why accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, have become such a popular family housing option in California. 84% of people over 50 said they would consider building an ADU to provide a home for a loved one in need of care.

Why are ADUs such a great housing option? Keep reading to learn more.

What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

Before we talk about how accessory dwelling units can benefit your family, you should first understand what they are and how they work.

An accessory dwelling unit is an additional living space on a single-family lot that’s independent from the primary dwelling unit. This isn’t just an extra attic bedroom--ADUs are fully-functional living spaces with their own kitchens, bathrooms, sleeping, and storage areas.

You’ve probably encountered accessory dwelling units before, though you may not have known it. They can serve a variety of purposes and come in many forms, as their many nicknames suggest. ADUs are sometimes called:

  • Accessory apartment
  • Granny flat
  • Granny cottage
  • Second suite
  • Live-in garage
  • Mother-in-law suite/apartment
  • Family unit
  • Guest suite/apartment
  • Carriage house
  • Backyard cottage
  • Tiny house (sometimes an ADU, sometimes not)
  • Basement apartment
  • Attic apartment

They can be anything from a tiny house in the backyard to a basement apartment to an apartment over the garage.

However, unlike condos or apartments, an ADU is not separate property. You can charge rent for it if you use it as an investment property, but ADUs cannot be sold separately from the primary residence.

Conversely, in most cities, owners cannot reside in a different home and rent out the ADU as an independent unit, nor can they sell the primary property to a landlord who intends to do that. To rent the ADU, you must also reside in the primary residence.

This is because ADUs do not require (or result in) subdivision of the lot. The ADU is part of the original property, not its own unique property, even if it is a separate part of the lot.

Because of this, the fortunes of ADUs are closely tied to the parent residence.

Types of Accessory Units

There are three main types of ADUs:

  1. Detached
  2. Attached
  3. Garage Conversion
  4. Junior ADU or (Internal ADU)

Other types may fall under these categories, such as garage conversions or interior conversions.

Detached ADUs

Detached structures are the quintessential independent mini-property.

As the name implies, detached structures are completely independent structures from the primary residence. They could be in the backyard, or be constructed from a renovated detached garage (Garage Conversion).

However, you cannot simply renovate your backyard shed, nor can you use an RV or a wheeled tiny house as an ADU. Detached ADUs must stand on their own foundation and they must have their own plumbing, electrical wiring, and utility hookups, which makes them more expensive as an initial investment.

The primary benefit of detached ADUs is independence. The resident could live a totally separate life from the primary homeowners--since they have their own plumbing, electricity, and entrance to the unit, they could peacefully coexist with minimal interaction. They could keep completely opposite schedules without disrupting each other.

Attached ADUs

If you want something one step closer to the main residence, there are attached external units.

Unlike detached units, which are freestanding, attached external ADUs must share at least one wall with the main house. However, they have separate entrances and no internal connections to the main unit (you couldn’t walk down the hall of your house into the unit--you’d have to go outside).

JADU (Junior ADUs)

Attached internal units are as up-close and personal as ADUs get.

These units are fully integrated into the main house--so much so that passerby may not necessarily know that there’s a separate unit contained within the house.

They share utility hookups, plumbing, and usually appliances, though they should still be fully functional as an independent living space (remember: it’s an apartment, not an extra bedroom).

JADUs are generally the most complex ADUs architecturally due to sharing the utilities, walls, and engineering of main home, and are frequently frowned upon by local planning and building jurisdictions--which is something to keep in mind in San Jose, California or other Bay Area cities.

ADUs as Family Housing

Homeowners use ADUs for a variety of reasons, but by far the most popular option is to use ADUs for added family housing.

The idea isn’t new. It used to be quite common to have someone living above a garage or in a converted attic or basement--even Thomas Jefferson lived in an ADU while Monticello was being built.

Today, California has struggled with a housing crisis for some time. The state should be building 180,000 units per year to keep up with the demand for housing, but only issued construction permits for 93,000 residential units over the last 12 months. Worse, the gap between income and housing prices has rendered housing inaccessible for many.

The problem in many California cities is a lack of space. There are many areas rendered completely inaccessible to new residential construction thanks to zoning restrictions. The issue has created increasingly bold proposals, including a bill overriding local zoning regulations to force cities to build mid-rise apartment buildings within half a mile of major transit stops.

Affording a home for one family unit is difficult enough. If you’re supporting multiple generations, the confluence of cost, limited space and sky-high demand means that traditional housing options are not viable. ADUs offer the perfect solution, allowing you to fit multiple generations in a housing option you can actually afford.

But it’s more than just the size of the family. It’s the needs of the family--especially for relatives with special needs and seniors.

Elderly Family Members

By far the most popular use of ADUs is housing for elderly family members who can no longer live alone.

As parents and older relatives age, many Americans face the same quandary: they know that their relatives cannot live alone, but if they are still largely independent or don’t need ongoing medical support, it’s difficult to justify assisted living. Even if relatives could benefit from assisted living, many families can’t afford to pay for additional support.

It’s also difficult to see your loved one, who has spent their life as an independent adult, forced to go to assisted living. Many seniors are resistant to the idea, especially if they only need ancillary support.

ADUs offer a perfect middle ground. Your loved one can still retain independence, but they also have the support they need, when they need it, from those who care about them the most.

Loved Ones with Special Needs

ADUs can also be a fantastic option for loved ones with special needs, whether they’re adult children or elderly relatives who cannot live independently.

The struggle for special needs individuals and their families is complex. On one hand, you want to give your loved one the dignity and freedom to be their own person. On the other hand, you also need to know that they’re safe and that their needs are met.

If you can’t afford special needs assisted housing, or if your home is ill-equipped for them to live there successfully, an ADU offers the perfect solution. They can be fully customized to accommodate the needs of your loved one and can offer independent, investment-friendly housing that will provide financial benefits for the long-term, while giving your family peace of mind.

The Benefits of ADUs as Family Housing

When you get down to it, ADUs are actually the perfect solution for family housing, especially when the housing market is so expensive and the cost of living is rising at its fastest rate in 10 years.

Still not convinced? Here are a few reasons why ADUs could be the perfect fit for your family.

Keep Your Family Close

First and foremost, ADUs allow you to keep your family close, and when your loved ones need your support, that’s something you can’t put a price tag on.

Let’s say that your loved one needs assistance. They live close by, but they’re still too far away to make it easy on anyone. Plus, the time it takes you to get to their house is plenty of time for a problem to get worse, and the house isn’t getting any easier to keep up.

You know you can’t keep going this way, but you can’t justify putting your loved one into a senior community or a nursing home. Especially if the options nearby just aren’t that good.

ADUs require an investment with great rewards, but the ability to spend more time with your loved one can be a remarkable bonding experience for your family, along with many other benefits.

Improving Your Care Options Through Proximity

If your loved one needs assistance in their day-to-day life, an ADU is a great way to improve your care options through proximity and make it easier to be there for your loved one.

Think of it this way...

Let’s go back to our earlier example--your parents live nearby and need support, but they live far enough away to be out of your way. Which option sounds easier for everyone: having your parents living in an ADU on your property, or going out of your way every day and asking them to wait while you get to them?

Keep in mind that care can also work both ways. If you have kids and a job, chances are that you need a babysitter every once in a while. Or, if not a babysitter, an extra set of hands to make your many daily commitments more manageable.

Your kids will love getting to spend more time with grandma and grandpa, your parents will love getting to spend more time with the grandkids, and you’ll love having someone around who can help out when you need it (or just spending more quality time with your parents, without the need for a drive). It’s a win-win-win situation.

Preventing the Negative Impact of Isolation

For seniors, isolation is more than just unpleasant--it can have a serious impact on their health.

You see, isolation is more than just loneliness. It’s a sense of being physically and psychologically cut off from family, friends, and community. Loneliness is a feeling, but isolation is a quantifiable concept, measured in the size and strength of your support network, availability of transportation, and access to resources.

Isolation is especially prevalent among older adults who no longer work, who can no longer drive, and who have limited opportunities to engage with a larger community. This creates serious health risks for those affected--for seniors, it’s just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

ADUs are a great way to combat isolation. Instead of your parents living alone or living far away because they can’t afford to live any closer, they can have direct access to their support network every day. This also means that you can help them engage with other seniors and find opportunities to stay active in the community.

Closeness Without Sacrificing Independence (or Your Sanity)

That said, ADUs are also a good way to bring your family closer without sacrificing your loved one’s independence.

An ADU is a fully functional independent unit. An apartment on your property. Your loved one can still keep all of their routines and independent living, but you can easily be there to help them.

ADUs are also a way to help you keep your sanity, especially in a caregiving situation.

Caregivers who provide unpaid care for at least 21 hours per week have the highest stress levels of any caregiving group. You’re essentially working an extra part-time job, on top of your full-time job and all your other commitments. Plus, the role reversal of parent and child in caregiving situations tend to complicate ongoing or preexisting conflicts.

Having an ADU, especially one with more independence like a detached unit, allows you to provide care while also having enough space to retreat to your own living corners and get some much-needed breathing room. Plus, they can make it easier to afford additional care if needed (and keep track of your loved one’s care to ensure they’re getting what they need).

Affordable Housing Options

This leads to our next point: affordable housing, for you and your loved one.

The truth is, housing is more expensive than ever, especially in a state like California where the cost of living is already so high.

If your loved one is retired or has special needs that prevent them from earning enough income to afford to live alone, they may not have the resources available to afford housing options currently available. This can get even more complicated if they don’t qualify for senior living facilities or nursing homes.

ADUs give them rent options they can afford (if you charge your loved one rent, which you may not). If your loved one still wants to pay rent as part of a fair trade, you can still negotiate a deal that’s affordable based on their resources.

Guaranteed Special Needs Amenities

Another struggle for many families is finding housing that offers special needs amenities.

If your loved one needs a wheelchair, you have to find an apartment that’s built to handle wheelchairs, with wide enough doors, wheelchair-friendly showers, doors, and accessible storage, never mind wheelchair accessibility just to get in and out of an apartment building.

On the other hand, trying to move your loved one into your spare room may not be feasible either. Your house may not be built to accommodate someone with limited mobility, which makes getting around difficult for them. Plus, they may have trouble accessing storage if it wasn’t designed with special needs in mind.

It’s frustrating for both sides, and since you’re in each other’s hair, things can quickly get out of hand

ADUs allow you to get a unit with specialized amenities for your loved one. Instead of struggling to find an apartment that’s both accessible and affordable, you can build one for your loved one and offer it to them at a rate they can afford (if you charge rent at all).

Plus, the units allow each of you to have your own living quarters, which means you can keep your own routines and your respective privacy intact.

Property That Can Grow With You

That said, don’t think of ADUs as a static investment. If anything, one of the biggest benefits of ADUs is that they have the power to grow and change alongside your family.

With a nursing home or an apartment, your ability to make changes is extremely limited. Even if your loved one is independent now, they may have decreased mobility in the future which renders their living space inaccessible. If you’re renting a space, you may not be able to make changes that your loved one needs.

With an ADU, you’re not limited by the terms of your lease contract or what a facility will or will not allow. You can build a unit that can work for your loved one for many years to come or adapt the unit as your loved one’s needs change.

This is more powerful than many people realize. You don’t have to worry about what changes the future might bring or whether a unit will work for your loved one in the future. You don’t even have to worry about your ability to get to your loved one to help if they need you.

Instead, you can build a unit that can truly be a home.

Let’s Talk About Money

We’ve only briefly touched on the question of money. But the truth is, money is a real consideration for many families--or, rather, the lack of money relative to your needs.

For most people, their options have real financial limitations. Seniors and special needs relatives may have limited income which restricts their ability to access housing. You have your own financial commitments as well--a mortgage, car payments, insurance, debts, college tuition--all of which reduce the amount of income you have available to help.

Many people have financial reservations about ADUs. But we’re here to tell you a secret: ADUs are an investment, but they may be more affordable in the long run.

The Cost of Moving a Loved One to Assisted Living

There’s no two ways to spin it: assisted living is incredibly expensive.

A semi-private nursing home room costs an average of $225 per day or $6,844 per month. If you want a private room in a nursing home, the cost shoots up to $10,000 per month.

If you’re like most families, you don’t have a spare $120,000 per year sitting around.

A one-bedroom unit in an assisted living facility isn’t much better. That rings in at around $3,628 per month just to start. And if you want a health aide, that costs about $20.50 per hour--if they provide services 20 hours a day, seven days a week, every week, that’s $1,640 per month. Keep in mind that if your loved one needs more extensive care, it will get even more expensive.

Ready to Build Something For Your Family?

So you see, building an ADU is so much more than just remodeling your house. It’s about building something for your family, to bring everyone closer together.

If you’re ready to turn your home into family housing that the whole family can enjoy, we’re here to help. We’re ADU specialists founded by housing advocates, and we believe that every family should have the freedom to make the right choice to support each other.


Want to find out more about building an ADU and how we can help bring your project to life? Click here to start the conversation with an ADU specialist today.