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Editor’s Note: This post is an extended case study from the AARP ABCs of ADUs publication published earlier in 2019. The first one was Walt Drake’s ADU: A Father-in-Law Unit in my Own Backyard. Stay tuned for additional extended case studies from this project in the coming weeks.Lina Menard
“We talked about someday buying a house with a mother-in-law unit so we could be closer. Then one day someone came along and wanted my house so I up and sold it, but it left me homeless. I asked my son if I could build a tiny house in his backyard and he agreed.”Bertha
Bertha and her son John had always been fairly close, but they lived their separate lives in different parts of St Petersburg, Florida. Each of them owned their own home and neither had plans to sell, but all that changed in 2016 when Bertha received a surprise offer from someone who wanted to buy her house.
As Bertha weighed her options, she considered that it had become increasingly challenging to find a good handyman to take care of repairs. Bertha had done most of these tasks herself in the past, but now that she was in her early eighties, there were a few things that she wasn’t comfortable doing anymore. Bertha and John had talked for years about purchasing a property with a mother-in-law unit so they could live nearby. It occurred to Bertha that this might be the right time since she’d have money available from the sale of her house. However, John was happy in his house and didn’t want to move to a new property. Luckily, John’s house had a large yard, so they found a compromise when Bertha proposed that she build a mother-in-law unit in John’s backyard.
Bertha had heard about tiny homes and wondered if she might find an option that would suit her well. She knew she didn’t want a tiny house on wheels. If she was going to invest the money from the sale of her home, the new house had to be both permittable and permanent. She began her research by exploring her options online.
“Because I had never had anything built I went online to see if there was anyone in the area that built tiny houses and that’s where I came up with Historic Sheds. We went to see them and made arrangements for them to build it.”Bertha
Bertha moved into an apartment nearby for the six months it took to design and build her little house. The move required downsizing from her two bedroom, two bathroom house with a living room and den into a one-bedroom apartment.
“I’ve gotten rid of almost everything I owned. I kept a few pieces of furniture I really like. A couple are in my son’s house and a couple in my house. When I buy something now I think ‘Could I get rid of something?’ I love books but now I don’t keep them around, I pass them on. My son is single, so I store Christmas stuff and winter clothes in his extra bedroom.”Bertha
As Bertha worked with Jo-Anne at Historic Shed to design her little house, she had a few criteria. She explains:
“I wanted to make sure there was light, so I paid attention to where to put the windows so the sun would come in. I wanted a decent sized bathroom, not just a hole in the wall. I also wanted a decent closet. As far as a kitchen went I knew I’d want a microwave and a refrigerator, but I knew I didn’t want to be cooking big meals in my tiny house.”Bertha
Jo-Anne helped Bertha and John figure out the logistics of the little house, including permitting. Bertha’s preference for not having a full kitchen turned out to be the magic bullet that allowed her to have such a small dwelling unit. In St Petersburg, as in many places across the country, an accessory structure like the one Historic Shed created for John and Bertha is considered a detached bedroom. An accessory structure can have its own bathroom, but having a full kitchen with a stovetop and oven is what makes an ADU an ADU. Bertha explains:
“Saint Petersburg is strict on the permits, so we had to have permits to get it built. I could not have a stove because then it would be called ‘rental property.’ It’s not rental property because it’s our family property. I paid for the little house and it’s on my son’s property. So I figured, if I’m doing cooking I can do it at my son’s house.”Bertha
During the design process, accessibility considerations weren’t foremost in Bertha’s mind, but she designed her bathroom to be generous enough to move around comfortably and she intends to retrofit grab bars if they’re ever needed. Fortunately, there are no steps inside the house nor are there any to worry about outside. When she walks out her front door there’s a little cement porch that attaches onto her son’s patio.
“If I had to do it all over again I’d give it a lot more thought. Not that I’m unhappy with it, but I’d have made it a little bigger. I used to love to have people over for lunches. It’s kinda hard. I’ve got to do it small, no more than 2-3 people. I don’t think I could live here if I did not have my son’s house to use. If I had to go out and take my laundry somewhere for instance. I always make sure to ask ‘Can I use the washer tomorrow?’ and he’ll say ‘fine.’ Having access to my son’s house makes it livable, otherwise I personally would not be happy.”Bertha
As the one year anniversary of moving into her wee home approaches, Bertha notes that she’s spent a lot of money and energy trying to figure out how to best furnish her place. As she puts it, “I’m trying to make more space where there isn’t any, so it’s been a struggle. I started out with a futon and then tried another futon and now have a daybed. I’m still in the process of figuring it out and I may have cabinets built-in. But I get out quite a bit, so I try not to let it get to me.”
Bertha has always been inclined to getting out and about and she has been very active in her community. In fact, moving out of her old neighborhood has proven the most challenging adjustment for Bertha.
“Even though I loved my house that I sold, I don’t necessarily miss it. I do miss my old neighborhood. There was a small park and I used to live right around the corner from my church. I’m very active in my church and there are always people around, so if I got bored could always go to church. I’m very active. There are very few days I stay home and do nothing. I play bridge. I play golf.”Bertha
On the other hand, she’s gained peace of mind, by being closer to her son. She says:
“I knew if something should happen to me and I should need help, it would be up to my son to get the help I would need. Even if he didn’t take care of me physically, it made sense to already be near him. It’s very comforting to know that he is right close by. To be honest, I would like to say this is where I will stay, so hopefully this will be my home forever.”Bertha
Bertha and John have found that living nearby has its advantages. Her son heads to work early so Bertha has access to his home for laundry and cooking. They keep an eye out for each other and help each other out.
“We’ve always gotten along good, so it works great! If I’m home all afternoon I might decide to cook dinner and I just go in and cook. I take my food and go out to my little house and leave him food. We give each other a lot of space, but we do talk and get along good. And if I need something done, like the window sticks and I can’t open it, he comes and opens it. He has a big yard and I like being outside. We have this nice patio between us. There’s tables and chairs. I like to fiddle around with flowers and I can have all the flower I want in containers.”Bertha
So what advice does Bertha have for someone considering creating an ADU on their family member’s property?
“First of all, I really think you have to have a pretty good relationship. Some people don’t need space and are happy having scads of people around. My son and I both need a little of our own space. If that’s the way you feel, make sure you have that. Make sure you get along. Also, when you see these shows on TV and a family of four is living in 300 square feet, that’s just made for TV. You can’t keep a lot of stuff, so you’d better like what you have. You need to think about what you want to get rid of and what you really want to keep.”Bertha
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Some great examples of cooperation and collaboration here. Love the extended quotes! They show that Bertha and John really know themselves and what they want, and that really contributes to the success of the project.
I also like the note that an accessory dwelling (or a detached bedroom, in this case) doesn’t need to be independent in every single feature. For example, something like a washer and dryer is necessary for everybody, but can probably be shared between the two units. That kind of cooperation — if thoughtfully done — could make detached bedrooms like this a good way to build inexpensive but still quality housing.
I am researching to see about an ADU for my backyard. My mother can’t live alone anymore and we need to get her out of her home, but didn’t want to put her in a nursing facility just yet. Most of what I see are up north. We are in Louisiana and I’m having trouble trying to find a seller around here!