Accessory Dwellings

A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…

The many and confusing synonyms for ADUs

A quick note about language here.  One reason people get so confused, and perhaps heated, about accessory dwellings is that language about them is  confused.  The different names conjure up different images; who wouldn’t rather live in a “carriage house” than in a “ancillary unit”?  The first one suggests the property has a heritage of horses; the second one a bureaucrat with a thesaurus.  “Basement apartment” conjures up some creepy place, whereas “apartment over the garage” conjures up the Fonz!

Fonzie and Ritchie, from Wikipedia. As you might recall, the Fonz lived over the garage.

There are at least a dozen names in circulation that are used for accessory dwelling unit.  Here they are.  I will add some links to usage examples as I have the time.

  • accessory apartment [example]
  • accessory dwelling [example]
  • accessory dwelling unit (the most commonly used term among planners, but weirdly, not used currently on Wikipedia)
  • accessory suite (used here to specify an attached ADU)
  • accessory unit
  • ADU
  • ancillary unit
  • backyard cottage
  • basement apartment
  • carriage house
  • dawdy house (among Amish)
  • garden cottage (used here to specify a detached ADU)
  • garden suite  (used mostly in Canada)
  • Grand Retreat (a commercial name) [example]
  • granny cottage
  • granny flat
  • granny pod [example]
  • granny unit
  • home within a home (used by Lennar marketing) [example]
  • in-law
  • in-law suite
  • in-law unit
  • “JADU” or “junior accessory dwelling unit” — a small, internal ADU [example]
  • laneway house
  • mother-in-law flat
  • “mother-daughter” or “mother/daughter” house [example]
  • multigenerational homes [example]
  • Next Gen (a commercial name) [example]
  • Ohana unit (in Hawaii) [example 1] [example 2]
  • SDU
  • secondary suite (more common name in Canada)
  • second unit
  • secondary unit
  • secondary dwelling unit
  • sidekick
  • tiny house [sometimes these are ADUs, sometimes not — see this]
  • two-family house [example]

This Babel-in-a-teacup might be okay if all these terms referred to exactly the same thing.  But unfortunately they don’t.  The usage of some real estate agents and appraisers suggests a difference between in-law suites and accessory dwellings, with in-law suites being either internal to the building or less independent than standard accessory dwellings.  And HUD makes a distinction between “accessory units” and “secondary units” that can have an effect on appraisals.

I recommend people use “accessory dwelling” or “accessory dwelling unit,” despite their somewhat bureaucratic sound.  For better or worse, these are the terms used most by planners and inspectors and governments, who you may want to work with or influence. And these terms are general enough they incorporate all the architectural forms of this kind of dwelling, whereas something like “granny cottage” does not.

page from an old encyclopedic dictionary, from flickr account of Double–M

But please, whatever you’re doing in the field–building ADUs or protesting them–for the sake of sanity please don’t add another synonym.  Thanks!

About Martin John Brown

Martin John Brown is a researcher and consultant on environment and housing. Find out more at

23 comments on “The many and confusing synonyms for ADUs

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2012 by in Design & Build, Financing, Policy & Trends and tagged , , .
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