A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…
Editor’s Note: photo credit goes to Kari Fuge
Nan Haemer has lived in the Mississippi neighborhood of Portland, OR for many years and she loves the area and her neighbors. In 2004 she decided to purchase an old home in the neighborhood. Shortly after, her neighbors Jeff and Brad began encouraging her to build a little cottage in her backyard.
“They both started advising regarding the possibility of building in this part of town within weeks of my purchase. They’d remind me of the possibilities periodically. I thought ‘You’re nuts! I’ll never have enough money.’ They both said ‘Oh, we talk about it all the time. We’ve already built it in our heads.’” –Nan Haemer
And it’s no wonder they were talking about it, because Brad and Jeff had little houses on their minds. At the time they were encouraging Nan to build, Brad and Jeff were building the Portland Garden Cottages of Upper Albina, making extensive use of reclaimed materials from the nearby ReBuilding Center. Nan was charmed by the little houses and she liked the idea of having steady rental income, but couldn’t figure out how to come up with the capital to build.
Nan is self-employed as a musician and music instructor, so banks have been wary about lending to her. In fact, when Nan inherited $50,000 from her mother’s estate in 2011, she attempted to refinance her house into a 15-year mortgage. However, in the heart of the recession the bank wouldn’t lend to her, even with a significant down payment. So she decided to invest the money in an ADU instead.
She struck up the conversation about the ADU with Brad again, who advised her that if she acted as her own general contractor she would save 10-20%. He also pointed out that if she provided the materials she wouldn’t have to pay a mark up on materials. So Nan decided to take Brad’s advice and his strategy. As she and Brad developed the design for her ADU, Nan spent a great deal of time at the ReBuilding Center, finding character pieces like doors to build around and later trim, flooring, and appliances to finish out her backyard cottage.
“The front door was the first thing we found. It lived in my bedroom for a while, until we actually started building. Brad had called me and said ‘I think I found your front door.’ It was one of the most expensive parts! That was when I made the commitment. After that I lived at the ReBuilding Center since it’s just a few blocks away. And I dumpster dove.” –Nan Haemer
An architect friend transferred Brad’s drawings into Auto-CAD in exchange for voice lessons. Nan and Brad quickly discovered that having an architect on their team was helpful because she spoke the same language as the staff at the Bureau of Development Services. Furthermore, her digital drawings went over better with them than the hand-drawn versions Brad had submitted when the Albina Garden Cottages were under review. Throughout the build, Nan continued to rely on salvaged materials and work-trade opportunities.
In Portland, OR, detached ADUs are subject to design guidelines, which require the ADU to match the look of the primary house. So Nan put lap siding on her ADU to match the primary dwelling. Brad shingled the gable with tin cans, just as he had on the Garden Cottages.
“At first they looked askance at tin cans as shingles, but there are examples just down the street. And the tin cans were free. Hannah at Laughing Planet collected them for me and I picked them up every day. That’s free siding – and a legal fire wall – in case you want to build something close to a property line!” –Nan Haemer
Matching the roof pitch proved more complicated.
“The roof pitch was a pain because I have a double-hip roof. The insulation and blocking up in the rafters was a challenge because of the double pitch. Then I learned you just have to go with the predominate pitch! If I could do it over again I’d do one pitch.” –Nan Haemer
However, Nan would have matched the ADU to the house, even if the requirement wasn’t in place.
“I wanted it to look like it had always been here. My house is 1904 and I wanted the ADU to blend in, too.” –Nan Haemer
The design for Nan’s ADU uses key space-saving strategies: the loveseat in the living room turns into a guest bed and the stacked washer and dryer take up as little space as possible. She also focused on ways to make the small space seem larger. Nan’s house has high ceilings, so she put 9-foot ceilings in the ADU, too. The French doors open onto the garden and lots of windows bring in natural light. Additionally, Nan and Brad put all of the plumbing into one wall shared by the kitchen and the bathroom, so that the plumbing runs are short.
Brad constructed Nan’s ADU using new materials for the structure. After an extensive search for windows at the ReBuilding Center, they were only able to find one window that would meet code requirements for energy-efficiency, so they ordered new windows from Parr. However the list of salvaged finish materials is impressive: the kitchen sink and cabinets, trim, siding, doors, tile, and most of the light fixtures came from the ReBuilding Center. The front porch light was from Nan’s grandparents’ house. Most furnishings were either given to Nan or purchased from Craigslist.
“The sliding door between the bedroom and living room are two panel doors repurposed. The kitchen sink was $40, including the faucet. DalTile has a discounted area and they had plum tile. No one else wanted it. Plum tile! The stacked washer and drier was cheap because I was looking for something else when it arrived. Myella called out, ‘Hey, your washing machine just showed up!’ They’re from 1984, so I had to order parts online, but you can find the parts online now, even for a 1984 appliance! Appliances like the stove and refrigerator I bought used from Appliance City in the Cully neighborhood. They have a lot of smaller things for apartments and ADUs.” –Nan Haemer
For the most part, luck was on Nan’s side while she was scavenger hunting for salvaged materials. However, she found that it was also important to be careful while scavenging.
“Originally I bought $400 worth of fir flooring from the ReBuilding Center, but it turned out to be infested with powder post beetle! After three days of pulling nails and marking the damaged and infested wood, I finally looked online and figured out it was powder post beetle, not dry rot. Tom at the ReBuilding Center was awesome and let us return it since it was infested. They had to destroy it. The knotty fir boards from Parr were plan B. And gorgeous. So now the flooring is ¾” knotty fir boards, not tongue-and-groove. We went with 3” and 6” boards randomized and screwed them to the joists over the plywood. It was inexpensive but cost a lot of energy in sanding. I rented a sander and it threw me around the room. And the polyurethane sealer looks and works great, but it took me weeks to get over the high!” –Nan Haemer
Nan did most of the finish work for her ADU herself.
“I’m a soprano. I’m not a builder. I’m not handy. But I did a lot of the finish work. I painted. I sanded. I stained. I pulled plenty of nails from the reused trim.” –Nan Haemer
Nan encountered three primary challenges during the design and building of her ADU. The first was the setbacks from the property line. Her property is located on an alley, so it took a while to sort out where the setbacks started. Nan also found that it wasn’t unusual for the estimate of fees to be lower than the actual cost. The fees were 6.2% of her entire project cost, even with the System Development Charges (SDCs) being waived. Finally, Nan discovered that inspectors sometimes disagreed with each other or differed in their interpretation of a regulation. She learned that asking to be shown the code section they were referring to often helped to clear things up. However, there was one inspector she simply asked not to return.
“My plumber went toe-to-toe with one inspector because the guy didn’t know what to do with a woman. He would talk to the men if there were men on the site. I thought, ‘Dude, It’s my project!’ Fortunately, I have contractor friends who said you don’t have to accept that. You have the option of saying ‘You may never come on my property again.’ So that’s what I did with the inspector who doesn’t deal well with women.” –Nan Haemer
Nan found it was often difficult to work with building professionals since her knowledge of building was limited prior to taking on this project. However, it became easier to ask for clarification over time.
“Not knowing stuff is hard if someone else knows it. It’s hard to admit you don’t know what they’re talking about. So you’ve got to learn to suck it up and saying ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’ The minute you start talking three-dimensional with nothing for me to look at, I’m lost. So I learned to say ‘You lost me. Draw me a picture.’ And that’s okay. If a soprano can do it, you can do it!” –Nan Haemer
For Nan, like many other homeowners without a building background, the highlight of her ADU build was getting her certificate of occupancy.
“Passing my final inspection was insanely euphoric. I did a happy dance and cried.” –Nan Haemer
Nan anticipated that she would use her ADU as a furnished, short-term rental. She figured it could be a landing pad for people who have just moved to town and are looking for something more permanent. However, she’s found that her tenants like the ADU enough that they don’t want to leave. Her shortest rental was to grandparents of her neighbors who stayed for a month and cooked up a storm in the little kitchen. Her current tenant has been there for nearly a year.
Nan explains that the mid-term rental has both advantages and disadvantages:
“I like not having to clean that often. It’s furnished so they don’t have to bring anything. I provide the sheets, but they do their own laundry and take care of the place. I’d like to stick with mid-term rentals. The trouble is short termers tend to take things you’ve put there. People get confused and can’t remember if they brought the sheets so they take them when they go. Also, I insisted on the U-shaped kitchen because I wanted to maximize the kitchen, but people who are short timers eat out, especially in this neighborhood! Overall, I like the mid-term rental. It’s less wear and tear.” –Nan Haemer
Nan’s current tenant especially appreciates that the ADU is well-insulated, so he can play his guitar without disturbing Nan or her neighbors.
“He likes to jam out, but because it’s a separate house you can barely hear it. That’s partly why he never tried to find an apartment. He watched all his friends try to find rental in Portland. So he said ‘This is great! I’m not moving!’ It works for me, too. Without that income, I’d be dead as a self-employed musician.” –Nan Haemer
Nan’s biggest surprise about having an ADU is how much the construction process destroyed her yard. Now that she’s fixed up the garden for the ADU, she’s turned her attention to landscaping she can enjoy from her own house.
“It was a mud pit. Now I’m putting in a patio for me and a pathway for me. I’m putting in privacy screening and a grape arbor, replanting my bulbs, and spreading mulch.” –Nan Haemer
Nan says there is no least favorite thing about having an ADU on her property.
“Would I go back? Hell no! There’s a mild worry about what if something bad happens, but, hey that’s life!” –Nan Haemer
When asked if she’d consider selling her property or moving in the future, Nan is clear that neither are options:
“No, you are carrying me out, toes up. I would consider living in the ADU and renting out the primary. It’s really cute. But I couldn’t do it while I use a piano to teach.” –Nan Haemer
So what advice does Nan have homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Go visit other ADUs before starting. And talk to the city first, multiple times. Go in there with ideas and questions. Ask ‘what square footage and height am I allowed to build?’ Find out what is your property zoned. You can find out most of this on the web at PortlandMaps.com, but if you don’t know anything they’ll help you find that information.” –Nan Haemer
Any final thoughts?
“I could not have done it without Brad as a builder, and their teamwork as cheerleaders. Jeff helps Brad on builds when Brad needs help so he has a hand in my house, too. They were hand-digging the foundation for their two cottages and had to get rid of a lot of dirt. I have a lot of gorgeous, amended soil from their yard in my yard, thanks to their build. They have been the best of neighbors!” –Nan Haemer