A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
“We love our little ADU; it was the best decision we’ve made. My 92-year-old mom lives there, and it’s great for her to have her own space, but for me to be available in the ‘Big House’ whenever she needs something.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Lesa Dixon-Gray stumbled across ADUs as she was researching multigenerational housing options for herself and her aging mother. Lesa’s mom, Shirley, was having a difficult time deciding where she wanted to live, but knew she didn’t want to live in the same house as her children. Lesa realized she might be able to entice her mother to move to Portland by giving her a place of her own. As Lesa began searching for duplexes, she discovered ADUs and accessory structures.
“We were looking for a duplex, but everything had stairs. That wasn’t going to work. I wanted Mom to be able to go from the street to the ADU and inside without taking one step up. Fortunately, I had a realtor who discovered a tiny house in someone’s backyard. She called me and said ‘Their house isn’t for sale, but let’s take a look to see if an ADU would work for you and your mom, too.’” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
As soon as she saw it, Lesa was convinced that a backyard cottage would be a good option. However, her property didn’t have enough room for a detached structure, so Lesa began looking for a property that would enable her to build a small, accessible L-shaped ranch house for her mom.
“My joke is that we bought this house for the property. We had the ADU designed already and it just fit perfectly on the property. It was an oversize lot on a corner, with a paved alley in the back. It’s almost like a street. It’s even got a street name. Of course, it is very difficult to give people directions to get there. They usually get lost.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
As Lesa worked with Shirley to create the backyard cottage, accessibility was a primary consideration. They included features that make it easier for an older person to live in the home. All the doors are 3 ft wide, the door handles are levers rather than knobs, and the bathroom has bars in the shower and around the toilet. Lighting was also important because Shirley’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be. She wanted good natural and artificial lighting so she could navigate safely.
Fortunately, designer Lis Perlman and Lesa’s partner – a former set designer for the movie industry – had a good sense of lighting and layout. Lesa and Shirley were inspired by other homes they’d seen that were both cozy and spacious. They decided to include skylights, a transom window, a nice entryway, and French doors. Lesa took out a home equity line of credit and used savings to fund the project. She then hired Eric Eaton of Eaton General Construction to build her mom’s home.
“I love my builder. He’s a very sweet guy, very honest. He communicates really well. I’ve given him stellar references. Not only has he worked with me on other projects since then, but he’s coming over next week to talk about the next project!” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Eric Eaton initially permitted and constructed Shirley’s house as an accessory structure. Whereas an Accessory Dwelling Unit is a self-sufficient housing unit with its own complete kitchen, bathroom, living, and sleeping areas, an accessory structure relies on the primary dwelling for activities such as cooking and bathing. In Portland, detached Accessory Dwelling Units are required to match the look of the primary dwelling, but accessory structures are not. However, Lesa decided to make her accessory structure match the primary dwelling anyhow.
“We liked that concept. The houses look really cute together and they are tied in with a matching shed in the middle.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
The accessory structure was a good option for this extended family since Shirley could rely on the kitchen and laundry in the “Big House,” as well as relying on Lesa. (See Detached Bedroom as Tiny House for another example of this arrangement for an extended family.)
“All dinner meals are shared, either at our house or her house. My mom pays me rent each month. This way I get to deduct electricity, utilities, etc. I pay for a housecleaner for her, and deduct that as well. I also provide her with transportation, take her shopping, etc. It’s a good, mutually-beneficial relationship.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
However, Shirley decided she wanted an oven in her home, so Lesa went through the process of converting the accessory structure to an accessory dwelling unit.
“When I went to put the stove in it, I had to go down to the Bureau of Development Services and do the whole stand-in-line thing. I had to go from table to table to table and write separate checks. The whole thing was about $600. They signed off piecemeal, one by one by one by one. It did take half a day, but then it was permitted as an ADU.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Lesa says that sustainability “wasn’t a main focus.” However, their attention to good lighting and comfortable temperatures guided them to an efficient heating and cooling system and passive solar design techniques.
“It was June when we were buying the property, so we were able to see how it would fit on the lot with the sun. The eaves are perfect. When the sun is high, it’s blocked by the eaves, and when the sun is low, it streams into the house.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Lesa also put in a ductless mini-split heat pump. The electricity for the ADU is tied into the electricity for the rest of the property and the “Big House.” Since Shirley needs both heating and air conditioning to keep the house at a comfortable temperature, there was a 1/3 increase in the electric bill once power was turned on for the ADU. So Lesa ended up installing solar panels on her home to meet some of the property’s energy needs.
“A friend dragged me to an energy fair at the Convention Center and there ended up being a solar sale. It cost us $6,000 to rent the solar panels. We then got a $6,000 tax rebate over 4 years – I get back $1,500 year for 4 years. We get the discount for the solar, and haven’t really paid anything to have it installed. That ended up dropping the electricity cost a third, so basically now the electricity is a wash. It’s exactly what it was before the ADU. In 20 years, they’ll come and get the solar panels, or we can keep it.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Lesa says that other than the cost of the utility bill, which she’s managed to mitigate, her only surprise has been how much her dogs are attracted to the ADU.
“They love visiting her so they migrate over. When my mother cooks, she drops food and they go straight to the kitchen to sniff around. The little dog, the Dauchshund, loves that it’s warmer and brighter in the ADU, so he goes and hangs out with my mom.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
Lesa is very pleased with the ADU and believes it will good for the resale value of her property. However, she notes that even if she moves she’ll likely keep the property and rent out both the house and ADU. (Portland is one of the few cities that allows homeowners to rent out both the ADU and the primary dwelling.)
“It’s working very well to have my mom in my back yard. It would have been harder to have her in a retirement facility, and more expensive. It was a long journey, I have to say, but it’s worked out really well. I would do it again.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray
So what advice does Lesa have for people considering building an ADU on their own property?
“Search for all the materials, fixtures, appliances, etc. before starting building, rather than going along during the process.” -Lesa Dixon-Gray