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A Housing Idea for Aging Parents Who Want Your Company and Their Privacy

Backyard cottages, converted garages and other “accessory dwelling units” offer both

By Chris Farrell

Janie Morisette taught school in Hardin, Montana, for 32 years before retiring in 2019. Her long-time home, with five bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and an attached garage, was too much home for a 72-year-old. She and her daughter, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, decided that Morisette would move to St. Paul and live in her daughter's backyard.

Morisette calls her new home a "carriage house." Her daughter says it's "Janie's coop" since they moved a chicken coop to make room. Urban planners and building inspectors call such homes "accessory dwelling units" or ADUs.

The exterior of an ADU. Next Avenue, Accessory Dwelling Unit
An exterior ADU design  |  Credit: Into the Box

Morisette and her daughter replaced a small garage behind her house with a new building — the carriage house. The lower level of the $280,000 structure is a two-car garage. Morisette lives upstairs in a nearly 800-square-foot one-bedroom apartment; she moved into her home in April 2021 and pays her daughter rent.

"I love it," says Morisette. "And when I am gone my daughter has a nice place for someone to rent."

The remodeled living space uses universally adapted features — such as lever-style door handles that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities — so that Morisette can comfortably age in place. She, her daughter and her granddaughters can see one another when they want, yet each has their own space.

"I love it," says Morisette. "And when I am gone my daughter has a nice place for someone to rent."

The multigenerational backyard-living promise of ADUs has long been tantalizing with the demographics of an aging population. Transforming a garage into a small living space or building a backyard guest cottage allows aging family members to stay close to their adult children and grandchildren. They can help each other out financially, emotionally and practically (think childcare and eldercare), while each maintains their independence and privacy.

Such gains need not require a lot of room. A 2021 survey of California's ADU owners by the University of California, Berkeley Center for Community Innovation found that most units are detached; the average square footage is 615 square feet; and a majority are one-bedroom (61%).

The Lure of ADUs

The lure of ADUs is obvious. But obstacles toward the multigenerational backyard living revolution have been formidable, ranging from local regulations to neighborhood opposition. While barriers remain (we'll get to them soon), there's no question that several trends have combined and reinforced one another in recent years to give greater momentum to the ADU movement.

"Demand is growing quite robustly," says Jamie Stolpestad, real estate entrepreneur and partner in Minnesota-based Yardhomes, which makes small prefab dwellings as ADUs (and other uses).

For one thing, the pandemic pushed more people to start evaluating an ADU as an option for aging parents. During the pandemic, many adult children couldn't visit their aging parents living in congregate settings, such as continuing-care communities, assisted living centers and nursing homes. The pandemic experience of trying to stave off illness left aging residents of congregate care socially isolated and lonely.

"People want Mom and Dad close to home, rather than go into senior living," says Stolpestad.

A woman standing in her ADU Accessory Dwelling Unit. Next Avenue,
Janie Morisette in her ADU in St. Paul  |  Credit: Chris Farrell

Another factor is the lack of affordable housing. The housing market has been red hot, especially after the early months of the pandemic. The median existing-home price in March of 2022 rose 15% from a year earlier, to $375,300, according to the National Association of Realtors. "People are turning to the ADU option because of the affordability issue," says Rodney Harrell, AARP vice president for family, home and community. "It's a creative option in the neighborhood people want to live in."

High home prices and a lack of supply seem to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for growing the ADU market. Regulation is also key. For example, ADUs in California are booming with the Golden State's astronomical home prices. Nevertheless, the ADU market didn't take off until legislators passed a state law in 2017 that overrode local zoning restrictions. The rules are uniform in the state, and in most circumstances you have the right to build an ADU.


The combination of nosebleed home prices and regulatory reform have turned much of the West Coast into an ADU hotbed. The rest of the country lags behind.

"Ninety percent of the U.S. has bad ADU regulation," says Kol Peterson, the owner of Accessory Dwelling Strategies LLC in Portland, Oregon.

The final factor is intriguing: The entrance of innovative entrepreneurs. The overall price tag for an ADU ranges widely around the country, but $200,000 is a reasonable average. Entrepreneurs are seeking to significantly lower the cost of ADU ownership by focusing on building tiny homes, modular housing, repurposed shipping containers and similar structures. Companies often offer standard blueprints and design options to keep costs down. The structures are often built inside factories and then assembled on-site.

"A number of people are doing high quality pre-fab," says Mark Thieroff, a land use attorney and ADU advocate in St. Paul. "The pre-fab approach might help."

Some Pioneers in This Field Think Inside the Box

Among the innovators is Into the Box, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based startup that uses recycled shipping containers to build studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Among the possible uses are ADUs for aging parents (anticipating growing interest, the startup has launched a waitlist.) The containers are not only recycled, but the product is designed as an eco-friendly, fully insulated, and off-the-grid living space. Into the Box is far from alone.

The containers are not only recycled, but the product is designed as an eco-friendly, fully insulated, and off-the-grid living space.

The competition using recycled and prefabricated homes is heating up. "Prefab and modular construction can bring down these costs down quickly," says AARP's Harrell. "A lot of promise there. It's a way to lower some costs and lower the barriers."

Still, the ADU market remains a work in progress. Local regulations in many regions of the country still erect costly obstacles. Local ordinances can require property owners to live in the single-family home or duplex in order to add an ADU. Municipalities often place onerous street parking restrictions on ADUs. Some areas require the new ADU to build a separate connection to the sewer line in the street rather than tap into the infrastructure of the existing house.

Lenders Have Not Yet Jumped on Board

Financing remains a hurdle. Part of it is simply the total cost. But most ADUs are funded with cash, a home equity line of credit, a cash-out refinancing or some combination. Although there is work going on, financial institutions haven't really developed products designed specifically for ADUs.

"Unfortunately, few loan products exist to finance ADU construction, and those that are available often do not go far enough in assisting property owners to build them," note scholars at the U.C. Berkeley Center for Community Innovation in their recent report "Reaching California's ADU Potential: Progress to Date and the Need for ADU Finance."

ADUs remain too expensive and too many community leaders aren't aggressively promoting the housing choice for an aging population. The more welcoming experience of California and several other localities demonstrates that the demand for ADUs is there.

The pressure to lower barriers to ADU construction and ownership will only intensify, thanks to the potent combination of too little affordable housing and the swelling demographics of an aging population.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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