Everyone is at
a different place
This course is about what you need to get started and to save time, money, and headache. We know that’s a bold statement. We intend to live up to it.
We asked all kinds of people who successfully built ADUs what they learned, wished they would have known, and what they would do differently if they could start over.
We asked builders and designers what they see as most important for future owners to know and understand when planning and building an ADU. We built ADUs for ourselves and others and took good notes.
Their insight and our direct experiences helped us create this course. Our goal is to help you and others like you think through, confirm, and get ready to build your own ADU.
There is a tremendous amount of information online about ADUs. While this information can be helpful, it can also be overwhelming. We created this course to help guide you through a life-changing choice like this.
Where do I start?
It can be confusing. Recently we talked with a group of about 20 ADU owners, builders, and homeowners. We asked what was in the way of moving forward and building. No one had the same answer. You are not alone with your questions. Read their questions.
When we talk to ADU owners and highly-rated builders, they report that the better the owner is able to describe "why" they are building an ADU and how that fits into the life they want to lead in the future, the better the design, the smoother the building process, and the happier everyone is when the builder hands over the keys.
“Most of us live our lives by accident. Fulfillment comes when we live our lives on purpose. Knowing your WHY provides a filter through which you can make decisions, every day, to act with purpose.” Simon Sinek
There is a cost to choosing not to build an ADU
Sometimes the costs are obvious and sometimes they are only clear in hindsight. Here are several stories about how people’s lives might have been different with ADUs in their life or neighborhood.
“We’ve lived here our whole adult life. But when my wife fell and broke her hip, we needed a house that she could get around in. We didn’t see any other choice but to sell and move. But we couldn’t afford Portland so we are moving to Iowa.”
“After my mom died, my dad wanted to move closer to our family. He couldn’t find anything reasonably priced.”
“I work for a nonprofit and I don’t get paid a zillion dollars. It’s hard to find anything decent I can afford.”
“After my husband died because of his injuries, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t afford the upkeep. So the kids and I sold it for what I later learned was a very low price. They tore the house down a few weeks later. It was a beautiful house. If only we could have figured out something. Maybe we could have had college education money for the grandchildren.”
“My parents have this big house they don’t need. I don’t know what they are going to do in a few years. My house has a big yard. If we build something together, then they have place when they need it. I have a decent job but it’s early in my career. With their help I could swing it. But nobody seems to want to talk about the future.”
What is an ADU?
As defined by Portland City Code, an accessory dwelling unit: “is a second dwelling unit created on a lot with a house, attached house or manufactured home. The second unit is created auxiliary to, and is smaller than, the main dwelling.”
What are ADUs used for?
About half of those who have built ADUs use it as a primary residence. Sometimes people use it for short-term rentals for a while and then convert them either to a long-term rental or they move into it themselves. ADUs are flexible and can serve different uses as lives and living needs evolve.
What’s so great about ADUs?
Challenge: Family members and friends of long-time residents find it difficult (if not impossible) to find housing near friends and family. As friends and family locate farther away, the fabric of families, networks of friends, and entire neighborhoods fray.
Opportunity: It’s a way to keep the feeling of the neighborhood alive by encouraging and enabling family and friends to live nearby instead of many miles away. It can provide housing for younger family members or those in transition to live.
For long-time residents
Challenge: Often aging in place is a challenge and the only financial exit strategy is to sell the house. Long-time residents are forced to leave family and friends and their natural support networks, further fraying the neighborhood.
Opportunity: An ADU means a family member, caretaker, or friend can live very close to help out when needed. Instead of being forced to sell as the best exit strategy, an ADU can generate cash flow, increase property value, and, in many cases, generate additional tax breaks that translate into real cash savings.
For neighborhood advocates
Challenge: Developers seek lots that are larger or well located, often those with neighborhood-defining trees and landscaping. These speculators often raze houses and chop down beautiful old trees and then jam as many tall structures into the lot as possible, neighbors be damned. In effect, they steal value away from the existing neighborhood, its character, scale, and livability.
Opportunity: Increased numbers of ADUs mean the price of those properties will rise, making them less desirable for speculators to buy and tear down, replacing original homes with blocky houses. It’s a way to increase urban density in a gentle way that avoids many of the political pitfalls of speculation, tear downs and demolition pollution.
For individual homeowners
Challenge: Building can be daunting. For every positive story, there seem to be many more horror stories about frustrating interactions with city permit officials, builders and neighbors. Builders range widely in quality, timeliness, pricing, and reliability. Homeowners are forced to grapple with many of these questions: How do I even start? Who can I trust? How can I manage the budget? Homeowners must also navigate financing options. Refinancing is often based on current income and taking out enough for an ADU may not be possible given current income for many, especially since middle-income earners have not experienced many of the economic gains of the recovery.
Opportunity: ADUs can help build family wealth as well as preserve or strengthen family ties.
For big thinkers
Challenge: Good growth can help make a community more vital, alive, and functional. Too often, out-of-neighborhood speculators only focus on profit. When pressured, they make promises to neighborhood groups but rarely live up to their words when it comes to the final building projects.
Opportunity: It takes many kinds of people to make a community viable and vibrant. Ensuring there is a growing stock of middle-income housing means public service and nonprofit workers can live near the people they help; young people starting careers can be in the heart of the city energy; and friends and family can afford to live nearby. Builders want to build so let’s help them do it responsibly and create neighborhoods we can all be proud of.
Challenge: The cost of land continues to rise, neighbors object, city regulations in response to political pressure are muddled and murky: it’s becoming mostly a lose-lose proposition for everyone. There’s housing demand, but the economics of building push developers toward the high square foot houses. After all, if profit is a percentage of the project, a percentage of a bigger number is more profit.
Opportunity: Helping builders better understand the tradeoff between neighbor’s concerns about too much density and the city’s desire to create more housing options can create better outcomes for everyone. ADUs can be a very attractive solution to these inherent conflicts.
Challenge: Many renters struggle to find housing close to work or school and that is easily accessible via bike, transit or walking. More importantly, many renters have trouble finding affordable housing – especially in close-in neighborhoods.
Opportunity: It’s a way to live in an affordable, energy efficient, conveniently located home within walking distance to many amenities – it’s not a building of faceless strangers.