- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

Thirty or so years ago, talk of "granny flats" probably would have conjured disdainful images of squarish, sturdy shoes. Today, the granny flat covers a lot more ground the kind measured in square footage, to be exact.

Sometimes referred to as an in-law suite, the legal term for a granny flat or home-within-a-home is "accessory dwelling unit," or ADU.

"This is the sandwich generation," says Carol Greco of Long & Foster's Carol Greco Group in Annandale. "You've got elderly parents moving in with their children, and the twentysomethings moving back in with their parents."

Such a new configuration for the family often necessitates a reconfiguration of space.

So what exactly is an ADU? The term actually encompasses a range of independent spaces, from relatively inexpensive basement or attic apartments that don't alter the footprint of the dwelling, to costly remodelings that can significantly add to the value of a home.

About half of the ADUs nationwide are occupied by relatives of the primary homeowner, according to information provided by the National Resource and Policy Center on Housing and Long Term Care. Of course, the actual proportion of relative occupancies varies significantly by community. The ADU can be an important source of rental income, and it can allow divorcees and single parents to stay on in the family home.

They are not the only ones who prosper from such an arrangement.

AARP "has been supporting ADUs as an option for older people for a very long time," says Andrew Kochera, a senior policy analyst at AARP. "We're looking for solutions that will allow older citizens to remain independent in their community."

For seniors hoping to hang on to their homes in face of rising maintenance costs and property taxes, an ADU can provide a number of important benefits, such as the added income from the single student or professional who moves in. Many seniors cite the sense of security that having an additional person in the house can provide. And as these homeowners age, they can make use of the opportunity for at-home service, such as cleaning up or preparing meals, in exchange for reduced rent.

In the Washington metropolitan area, it's often the children who are adding ADUs for their parents, but frequently it's the parents who pay for the renovations, says architect Bruce Wentworth of Wentworth-Levine Architect-Builder Inc.

"Often, the children are tempted because they can enhance their house," he says. "I've frequently seen all sorts of accoutrements thrown in to sweeten the deal, like new windows and doors for the whole house."

In these times of tightened wallets, the younger generation can get a real perk from asking their parents to stay: free child care.

"I see a lot of that," says Ozzie Yazgan, owner of Itek Construction and Consulting in Arlington. "People think the parents are going to take care of their kids. Most of the grandparents I see are in pretty good shape."

No matter what the shape of the older parent, an ADU isn't always the answer, especially for parents and children who have not lived together for more than 20 years.

"Sometimes, families think they're going to share everything kitchen, bathroom, entrance and then it doesn't work out," Mr. Wentworth says. "One woman actually ended up selling her house."

Whether the extended family will be successful has much to do with the nature of the remodeling itself.

Mr. Wentworth cites one client, recently divorced, who contemplated moving back in with her widowed mother in her childhood home. The attic would be converted into a master suite for the mother, while the daughter lived downstairs, but, as it turned out, the mother was not quite sure she wanted to live with her daughter again.

"She started thinking, 'Do I really want to hear my daughter downstairs with her new boyfriends?'" Mr. Wentworth says. "They decided not to do the renovation, after all."

Adding an ADU can place particular demands on the pocketbook. Raising a second story, for example, would be far more costly than simply partitioning a basement or an attic, and there are aesthetic considerations, as well.

"Our firm's goal is to make the addition sympathetic to the existing house," Mr. Wentworth says. "That means we work in the style of the primary house."

Recently, Mr. Wentworth designed an ADU for an arts-and-crafts-style bungalow in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington.

"We made sure the siding, windows, roofline and dormers all related back to the original building," he says.

He also made sure there was a "hyphen" or breezeway, connecting the new part of the house with the old.

"That's important so parents can feel that they have their own entrance," he says. "They may share the vestibule, but then go off in different directions."

That degree of separation can be a selling point when the homeowner eventually decides to sell.

"The property may not always be set up for two," he says. "The next homeowner may have different needs so if you set up as a master suite, or teenager or nanny apartment, you may be improving your options in the long run."

Of course, there's another important factor in determining the success or failure of an ADU: zoning.

"Every jurisdiction has its own rules," says Mr. Yazgan, who works primarily in Northern Virginia. "It's up to the county to determine what you can build or even if you can build, at all."

Fairfax County, for example, allows only "rooms for guests" in certain zoning districts, provided they are without kitchen facilities and are used only for the occasional housing of guests.

In the District, zoning regulations frequently differ by neighborhood. Provisions for ADUs in predominantly residential areas frequently require the owner to live on-site and to minimize exterior changes to the appearance of the home.

Washington's neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Logan Circle, and Adams Morgan all have zoning that allow for some form of ADU.

"They are very popular in the old city, below Florida Avenue," says Connie Maffin, an associate broker at Coldwell Banker Pardoe. "You can have an accessory dwelling as a matter of right as long as you meet code requirements."

Other neighborhoods, such as Burleith and Glover Park, are more vigilant, and if you have a less-than-legal granny flat in your home, beware. You might find it more difficult to sell.

"Realtors are nervous about taking housing with a less-than-legal unit," says Mrs. Maffin, who walked away from one such property in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood, "and we constantly remind people that their units are required to be registered in the city."

In the District, all applications for creating an ADU must be approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Wherever you live, it's important to find out whether the unit you plan will actually be a legal one. Many neighborhoods in the Washington metropolitan area actively discourage ADUs. Still others require that construction of such a unit conform to specific regulations regarding square footage and owner occupancy. Deed covenants also might hamper ADUs, and they are difficult to circumvent.

"I don't know that that many of the ADUs I see have zoning approval," Mrs. Greco says, "but if you do, having one can be a very nice asset."

On the other hand, some jurisdictions actually encourage ADUs, particularly for low-income residents. In Maryland, for example, the Department of Housing and Community Development has, since 1986, sponsored the Accessory Shared and Sheltered Housing Program. Access provides loans for accessory dwellings in single-family homes, provided that the homeowner resides on the premises and that the annual incomes of the owner-occupant and the occupant do not exceed 80 percent of the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area's median income.

Still, the creation of an ADU can pose problems in some neighborhoods.

Area civic associations often oppose the creation of such units because of the perceived increased noise and traffic that such units bring.

If you have just bought a house with an ADU, a legal one, you may find it to your benefit to keep it that way.

"It can be a very nice income flow," says Mrs. Maffin, who owns and lives in a multifamily dwelling herself. "If you've got a 7,000-square-foot town house, being able to rent out a two-bedroom apartment for $2,500 a month is a pretty good deal."


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