Real Estate News


For decades, American houses gotbigger while family sizes got smaller.But lately, there's been a shift. Asthe economy has struggled, moreextended families have begun sharingspace - whether unemployedyoung adults moving back with their parents,or seniors moving in with their childreninstead of entering assisted living.

Michael Litchfield thinks this trend willcontinue. In his new book, "In-laws, Outlawsand Granny Flats" (Taunton Press,$24.95), he shows how to create secondaryliving spaces - also called in-law units,granny flats, and accessory dwelling units- in ways that protect everyone's comfort,budget and privacy.

Litchfield lives in a second unit on anold dairy farm in northern California, ina renovated building that used to containtractors. He shares how to turn a house intotwo homes.

Question. The projects you look at inyour book are not just for the in-lawsor Grandma. They're also home offices,and they're places for adult childrenwho are coming back.A. In some cases, young peoplechoose them so they can put an au pair inthe unit, or maybe they need the rental incometo qualify for a mortgage.

Q. Do you expect that as the babyboomers age, second units will becomemore popular?A. Oh, absolutely. The baby boomers aregoing to want to age in place and they're goingto need health care. I think the AARPsaid it's about a third of the cost to care forsomeone at home or in a community-basedsetting, as opposed to an institutionalizedsetting.

Q. A lot of the projects in your bookseem to be about 400 square feet.What's the minimum amount of spacethat works for one of these units?A. Local zoning codes are going to determineminimum and maximum sizes, but myfeeling is that if they're carefully designed,350 to 400 square feet can work.

Q. What are some of the tricks to makingsuch a small space livable?A. If you're working with a small footprint,it's really a good idea to have high ceilings.Somehow, that increase in volume justmakes it feel bigger. Lots of natural light isalso really important. It's a more cheerfulspace, and if you're incorporating the outsidein your view or as a patio or deck, thatgives you the sense of more space.Also, furniture with multiple functions isanother good space saver.

Q. A lot of the units are handicappedaccessible.Why is this important?A. Even if a homeowner is in relativelygood shape now, it makes a lot of sense tothink ahead, because you can count on gettingolder and infirm.To make a house more accessible, youneed doorways and hallways to be at least36 inches wide. That allows someone in awalker or wheelchair - or for that matter,a mother with a baby on her hip - to getaround much more easily. Also, eliminatingor reducing the thresholds.Sliding doors and pocket doors are generallymuch easier to open if you have limitedmobility, and they take up less space thanswinging doors.

Q. You have a chapter on getting approvalsfrom the town, which can be difficult.A. It depends on the town. Where there'sa compelling need for these things, peopleare going to build them anyhow - hencethe "outlaws" in the title. So zoning is startingto change. Planning commissions don'twant to impose constraints on people thatare really unpopular.

When cities allow private individuals tocreate second units, they're actually creatingaffordable housing. And it's not costing thetaxpayer a dime. So everybody's winning.

Q. Could you talk about the main kindsof projects you have in the book, andwhat are the challenges of each?A. I'll go from the simplest to the morecomplex.The carve-out is basically when you appropriatea couple of rooms and a bathroom,and you pretty much just need to add akitchenette to make it an autonomous livingspace. That's really good for a caregiveror an elderly relative you want to have close.It's less good for a rental unit because thereare privacy issues.

In any in-law unit where you're sharing awall or a ceiling, you have to be concernedwith soundproofing.

Then there are bump-outs - that's sort oflike a carve-out, with another room attachedto the house. This can be a cost-effective wayto go because you're taking advantage of existingframing and maybe sharing a wall ortwo. It eats up less of your back yard.

Garage conversions are very popular.They're separate from the main house, soyou've got good privacy. Also, garages tendto be minimally framed or unfinished, soyou don't have to tear out a lot of stuff.

Standalone cottages are probably the mostflexible space in terms of who you can rentit to or put in there. But they can eat up a lotof your back yard. If you have a medium tolarge lot, they're a great way to go.

An attic conversion is probably bestfor someone who's a relative or someonewho's young, because stairs are an issue.Sound is also an issue. If the attic was originally