home icon

Long-Term-Care Alternative: Prefab Granny Flats

These modular units are a safe, affordable option for parents who wish to age in place

By Craig Guillot | November 14, 2012

If you're one of the nearly 44 million Sandwich Generation adults who are caring for a parent, it’s encouraging to know there's a smart and relatively inexpensive alternative to putting Mom or Dad in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, or having them move in with you.

It's the “granny pod” — a  modular, handicapped-assessible residence that can accommodate medical needs and allow your loved one to age in place in a small home, right in your backyard. 
 
The development couldn’t come at a better time. According to the 2012 Cost of Care Survey by Genworth insurance agency, approximately 70 percent of people 65 and older will require long-term-care services at some point. Two-thirds of Genworth’s benefit claims are for home health care, indicating that the majority of those people prefer to receive that assistance in their own residence. 
 
The granny pod is designed to cater to this burgeoning demographic. Because of their modular design, most units can be attached to or detached from the primary home and can be permanent or temporary. Typically these units feature a bedroom, living area, bathroom and small kitchen.
 
People who go this route tend to find it preferable to a nursing home. Being close to family makes the elder feel less isolated (and could reduce the risk of resulting depression). On top of that, adult children cite the relative’s sense of independence, privacy and security — and they’re grateful for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that Mom or Dad is just steps away.

(MORE: The Landscape of Long-Term Living Options)
 
Granny Pod Models and Features
 
Today there's a handful of home building companies offering both prefab and customized modulars, and some units can be delivered to your property in as short a time as a week.
 
Starting at $60,000, N2Care’s 288-square-foot unit, MEDCottage, is marketed as a “nursing home alternative.” The entire structure is accessible, has rubber floors (to minimize damage from a fall) and offers medication dispensers and robotic technology to monitor the resident’s vital signs (including glucose levels and blood pressure). There’s safety lighting and air filters, floor-mounted sensors to alert you of potential health problems and falls, and even a lift to help the resident use the bathroom. 
 
Nationwide Homes got into the game last year with its Care-Cottage, a 14- by 44-foot modular unit designed with assisted-living needs in mind. “People coming into the backyard but with a place of their own are less likely to feel like they're imposing on the family when they move into the house,” says Dan Goodin, an executive vice president at Nationwide. 

Nationwide is working with the home-medical-equipment company VGM Group, which can assess the occupant's needs and custom-build a unit for them, including such features as a lift to hoist them out of bed. The 605-square-foot model unit created for a trade show last year would sell for about $65,000.
 
Another product, PALS (Practical Assisted Living Solutions), is available with two different floor plans, each approximately 330 square feet and intended for people with limited mobility or planning to age in place. Grab bars are located throughout the unit, and all doorways, plus the entire bathroom (toilet, shower, sink), can accommodate wheelchairs.

In a piece for The New York Times, Susan Seliger interviewed Rob Pintoff, a retired pharmacist in Connecticut, who said that when he crunched the numbers, he concluded that the best option for his 83-year-old infirm mother-in-law, Enid Zlotnick, was a PALS unit. “Enid’s happy,” he said. “And the only other option was a nursing home. It looks like it belongs there, it adds value, and it might be useful for my wife and me one day.”
 
(MORE: Facts: Moving a Parent Into Your Home)
  
How to Save Money and Maximize the Value of a Modular Unit

In the long run, a modular pod can be a smart investment. According to Genworth’s 2012 Cost of Care Survey, the national annual cost for a semiprivate room in a nursing home is about $73,000 a year, while assisted-living facilities average slightly more than half that amount.

One can never predict how long anyone will live, but a basic pod can be cheaper than completely retrofitting a home and can more than pay for itself if your loved one lives in it for many years. Ultimately, you need to do your own cost analysis based on a multitude of personal factors. And something to bear in mind is that with your loved one in your care, you may need to hire a home nurse or take on some duties yourself.
 
Unlike a permanent home remodeling job, a pod's flexible design comes in handy if and when you no longer need the unit. It’s relatively easy to remove one from the property, sell it and recoup some of your investment — usually at least half. Ultimately, it’s not just a fixed expense but an asset. 
 
Since you may not be able to recoup your full investment by reselling the unit, it makes sense to carefully weigh future needs and opt for a model that best enables reuse by you or another family member down the line.
 
Check Your Local Building Codes
 
Although portable and affordable modular homes and units are good solutions for many homeowners, some urban communities’ zoning regulations ban them. But granny pod builders are working to change that. In 2010, N2Care successfully convinced the Virginia General Assembly to pass a law that supersedes local zoning ordinances and allows homeowners to put a modular dwelling on a property with a doctor's order.
 
Four other states (including New York and California) have introduced similar legislation to allow for medical modular units. Ken Dupin, the founder and chief executive of N2Care, says the approaching wave of seniors in need of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities will put a tremendous strain on Medicare and Medicaid.
 
Henry Racki, the founder and chairman of PALS, acknowledges the industry is in its infancy and that pod manufacturers are still trying to educate the public on cost-effective alternatives. With people living longer and the cost of care rising annually — not to mention the potential for a shortage of beds and care in nursing homes — he says creative solutions will become more important than ever.
 
And for millions of Americans looking to age in place, a customized mini medical mobile home might be just the ticket.
 
Craig Guillot is a business writer whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com, CNBC.com and Bankrate.com. He is the author of Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People.