Moving on Up

Accessory Dwelling Units

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This adorable laneway house provides auxiliary housing in

Vancouver, British Columbia (Mike Quigley)

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are secondary residences on the same piece of land as primary residences. It easily could be said that today's ADUs are yesterday's guest cottages. Like those dwellings, today's vary from one-room cabins to houses large enough for an average-size family.


They can be garages that have been converted into small houses, or they can be dedicated small houses. Architectural styles vary from traditional to contemporary. Some reflect the original architecture of the garages they occupy, while others are as striking as Bauhaus designs (think mid-century contemporary houses).

People have been slow about accepting ADUs. Not all neighbors are glad to see them come about. That is all the more people competing for parking spaces and having parties. Too, the more upscale neighborhoods worry that having apartments in the area will lower their property values.


As more and more people have found it necessary to find less expensive housing, homeowners have taken it on themselves to convert their garages, with or without neighborhood or city approval. Slowly, jurisdictions are coming to grant permission for these conversions. Even so, they are setting rigid guidelines to ensure that building methods meet codes to ensure that the garage conversions become safe residences.

Garage Conversions

It is becoming popular to convert garages into small houses or apartments. They can be used by senior citizens who need to live close to their children, by children who have returned home and need an affordable place to live until they get on their feet, by tenants who need a more affordable place to live than they can find in the traditional marketplace, or by homeowners who need the rental income to help pay the mortgage on the main house on the property.

The average two-car garage is about 400 square feet in size, while the average one-car garage is about 240 square feet. In either case, there is room for a living area, kitchenette, bathroom, and a small sleeping area.


Read more about garage conversions.  Lufkin. Bryan. Garages – The New Affordable Houses: Rethinking how we use urban spaces could help tackle an unaffordability crisis in many cities. June 17, 2019.


Laneway Houses

Laneway houses are closely related to garage conversions; in fact, many are. Their distinguishing feature is that they face a laneway -- or service alley, as they are called in the States. In England, they are called annexes.


Not all laneways are garage conversions. Some are new construction. Still, they are considered ADUs, and still, they face the laneway.

It should be noted that laneway houses are only practical where lots are large enough to accommodate a second house or where garages are being converted into small houses. In fact, the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, goes so far as to specify the size of the house in relation to the size of the lot and requires that off-street parking be provided for at least one car and that a certain amount of lawn be maintained between the main house and the laneway house. (City of Vancouver. Laneway Houses and Secondary Suites

Read more about Laneway houses. Laneway House Guide. City of Vancouver.

Backyard Houses

In California, houses are being built in the back yards, even behind upscale houses in the Hollywood hills. They differ from laneway houses in that they are not necessarily sited on laneways (or service alleys). Backyard houses appeal to several financial brackets but are sometimes viewed as a way to take the homeless off the streets in an area where the homeless population is astronomical. 

Backyard homes were legalized after too many self-built houses caught on fire due to improper wiring. (Lufkin, Bryan. Garages – The New Affordable Houses: Rethinking how we use urban spaces could help tackle an unaffordability crisis in many cities. BBC. June 17, 2019.) Still, many applications still are being rejected. Why? Because of overhead power lines (Lufkin, Ibid). Perhaps, in time, all utilities will run underground. That's a very good idea, both in terms of safety and continuity of services in the event of heavy storms.

Secondary Suites

Secondary suites include basement and attic conversions to create apartments. Again, they can provide housing for children moving back home and seniors who need to be close to their families. 

We saw an excellent example of a secondary suite on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM Enterprises / CBS Television, 1970-1977). Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) lived in the attic of an older house that had been converted into apartments. The draw for her was the affordable rent for a young associate producer at the local television station. The draw for the audience was its charm with the large windows, the bookshelves under the split level, the shutters that closed off the kitchen, and the double doors that led into a walk-in closed and, we assume, a bathroom beyond. 

In Toronto, Ontario, basement flats have gained popularity as a way of generating income to help homeowners meet their mortgage payments. The city is strict about all details, including the installation of fireproof insulation between floors.




Although ADUs can be the answer to your residential needs, be sure to do your homework before you turn the first spade. Jurisdictions can be very restrictive in these matters. So can the current high cost of home construction.