Maybe a college student moves into their parents’ refurbished attic after graduation. Or perhaps a family creates a comfortable home addition for elderly parents, or a divorced man relocates to a basement apartment. Whatever the scenario, one thing’s for certain: secondary dwellings (also known as in-law apartments, or granny flats) are on the rise. “In-law units have especially become popular in urban areas, where we need to make better use of the space we have,” says Michael Litchfield, a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine who has been renovating houses for more than 30 years. “It’s a national phenomenon.” His book In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats is an information-packed resource for the trend.
Though it’s increasingly relevant to our age, there’s nothing new about the idea of making a home for one family into a home for two (or more). In 1900, more than half of people over age 65 lived with their adult children. But after World War II, thanks to the G.I. Bill, suburban developments and single-family homes proliferated—and multigenerational living all but vanished. Now, mainly in response to pressing economic needs and booming populations in urban areas, there’s a lot of appeal to secondary dwellings. Adults are taking care of their own parents; they’re also seeing their own children move back home. (The Census Bureau reports that the number of adult children living with parents increased 1.2 million to 15.8 million between 2007 and 2010).
The in-law apartment is “rooted in our history,” says Litchfield. “Now, Americans are rediscovering the idea.” Indeed, as many as a third of househunters these days are looking for places that have in-law units or separate entrances.
Litchfield wrote his book after moving out of a larger home in Berkeley, California and into a renovated tractor shed next to a farmhouse 40 miles north in Point Reyes. It is an excellent how-to guide on creating your own accessory dwelling, including tips from design process to smart space allocation. Photographs and floorplans of 30 architect-built examples, ranging from 250 to 750 square feet, span all types and styles. The units can take many forms, from attic or basement conversions to backyard cottages.
It’s not just individuals who benefit from these dwellings—communities do, too. “There’s a social component to it, too,” says Litchfield. “Neighbors bring each other soup, people learn to share spaces, and overall, it appeals to people’s communal aspirations and rejuvenates surrounding places.” As a result, cities such as Santa Cruz, Denver, and Seattle are changing zoning laws as they realize the economic benefits, from increased tax bases to increased use of mass transit.
It’s really a win-win solution for all—even the planet. “In-law units start with existing buildings, use less materials, and have a smaller footprint than new single-family homes,” says Litchfield. “The bottom line? They tax the earth less and they provide affordable housing.” Sounds like smart growth to us.