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In-Law Suites: Finding Space and Income in Your House

In-Law Home Additions

Apartments, suites, and cottages added on to a main home as additional living space are nothing new. They can be created from attics, basements, garages, additions, existing space in the home, or as freestanding structures. Many call them in-laws, since they often house an elderly parent; if they're for renters (or illegally built), they're called outlaws; and those ever-colorful bureaucrats call them ADUs (accessory dwelling units). In these post-recessional times, however, the in-law suite has
Photo courtesy: In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Apartments, suites, and cottages added on to a main home as additional living space are nothing new. They can be created from attics, basements, garages, additions, existing space in the home, or as freestanding structures. Many call them in-laws, since they often house an elderly parent; if they're for renters (or illegally built), they're called outlaws; and those ever-colorful bureaucrats call them ADUs (accessory dwelling units).

In these post-recessional times, however, the in-law suite has taken on a new appeal for families who are downsizing, simplifying, or who want to earn extra income with a rental apartment. Some homeowners even rent out the main house while living in their lower-maintenance in-law housing. In another sign of the times, they're also being used for adult children who return home after college until they can find employment and get on their feet.

A Coldwell Banker survey of agents found that a third of homebuyers want properties with potential to house multiple generations. As accessible housing close to care-giving family members is so desirable for older Americans, the AARP and APA have been active in easing zoning regulations to help more of these secondary living spaces get built. A survey by the AARP indicated 36 percent of Baby Boomers would add an ADU if they needed one as they aged.

Michael Lichtfield, founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, wrote the book "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House Into Two Homes," which features case studies of many innovative secondary living spaces.

Litchfield lives in an in-law himself, on a former dairy farm in the greater San Francisco area. He says it's what he wants at this stage: to live more simply, enjoy life, get more exercise in a seashore area he calls one of the most beautiful places on earth. Click ahead to see clever examples of what happens when homeowners turn "this old house" into two homes.

By Colleen Kane
Posted 7 April 2011

Basement with a View

Type: Basement conversion Footprint: 340 square feet Location: Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada Created: 2005 This most unusual of in-laws offers 20-mile views from a basement apartment. It was originally a crawlspace, but one the owners designed with the possibility of an eventual in-law suite in mind. It's a small area, so the living room doubles as the bedroom using a Murphy bed, but the long views and light-reflecting local maple floors help it feel larger. In a bit of visual trickery,
Photo: Art Grice | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats" published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Basement conversion
Footprint: 340 square feet
Location: Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada
Created: 2005

This most unusual of in-laws offers 20-mile views from a basement apartment. It was originally a crawlspace, but one the owners designed with the possibility of an eventual in-law suite in mind. It's a small area, so the living room doubles as the bedroom using a Murphy bed, but the long views and light-reflecting local maple floors help it feel larger. In a bit of visual trickery, the three-quarter-scale refrigerator sits on a 12-inch platform to give the illusion of full size. The apartment also has many green touches, incorporating recycled fir cabinets and paneling, passive solar design, and concrete floors for thermal mass.

Murphy Ranch

Type: Bump-out addition Footprint: 800 square feet (2 floors)Location: Inverness, California Created: 1857 This is a vintage example of an in-law, originally built as a bunkhouse for favored ranch hands, which was divided into numerous mini-bedrooms. The dairy farm became a beef farm, requiring less workers, and the arrival of the automobile eliminated the need to live on the ranch, so in the years following WWII the door between the bunk house and the main house was sealed and a kitchen was add
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Bump-out addition
Footprint: 800 square feet (2 floors)
Location: Inverness, California
Created: 1857

This is a vintage example of an in-law, originally built as a bunkhouse for favored ranch hands, which was divided into numerous mini-bedrooms. The dairy farm became a beef farm, requiring less workers, and the arrival of the automobile eliminated the need to live on the ranch, so in the years following WWII the door between the bunk house and the main house was sealed and a kitchen was added to the space, while some of the partitions were removed. It was for years the home of an elderly worker, his wife, and 30 dogs. After the passing of the last occupants, the space now serves as an in-law apartment and it's rented to visitors interested in the working ranch or the parklands.

Bump-out additions save by sharing walls with the existing house, and are a good way to add space without creating an entire new structure, but they aren't the most private of in-law types. Because of this, they're also less desirable as rental units. This one also counts in its favor an east-facing morning porch, majestic landscape, and exposed redwood beams.

Tramutola Bungalow Basement

Type: Basement conversion Footprint: 750 square feet Location: Oakland, California Created: 2009 Basement conversions are among the most cost-effective types of in-law suites, provided there's enough headroom in the basement. Natural light doesn't have to be an issue if the home is located on a sloping lot, like this one created in a Craftsman bungalow. To allow more light, the stairs to the main floor were moved and French doors were installed. This conversion benefits the upstairs also with be
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Basement conversion
Footprint: 750 square feet
Location: Oakland, California
Created: 2009

Basement conversions are among the most cost-effective types of in-law suites, provided there's enough headroom in the basement. Natural light doesn't have to be an issue if the home is located on a sloping lot, like this one created in a Craftsman bungalow.

To allow more light, the stairs to the main floor were moved and French doors were installed. This conversion benefits the upstairs also with better placement of the deck stairs, and the soundproofing in the new apartment's ceiling made the upstairs floors warmer. The newly created apartment features elegant architectural touches in keeping with the Arts and Crafts style, and its one-level living makes easy access for older relatives or renters.

Lum Cottage

Type: Stand-alone Footprint: 355 square feet Location: Berkeley, California Created: 2008 Stand-alone cottage-style in-law residences are typically the most desirable, especially as rental spaces. They offer the most privacy and room, and there are far more design options. Of course, if the homeowner is creating a standalone from scratch, it's also more expensive to construct an entire new building. Lisa Lum and husband Michael Hohmeyer had three young sons, which kept them from traveling as muc
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Stand-alone
Footprint: 355 square feet
Location: Berkeley, California
Created: 2008

Stand-alone cottage-style in-law residences are typically the most desirable, especially as rental spaces. They offer the most privacy and room, and there are far more design options. Of course, if the homeowner is creating a standalone from scratch, it's also more expensive to construct an entire new building.

Lisa Lum and husband Michael Hohmeyer had three young sons, which kept them from traveling as much as they used to. In order to house the international friends (and grandparents) who visited them, they built this cottage. Lisa, a veteran of several renovations, oversaw the project. It features exposed wooden beams (painted white, to not feel imposing), a spa-like bathroom, a modest kitchenette (so guests can take their meals with the family), and the quiet of being a separate building from three young boys.

Finches' Guest Cottage

Type: Garage conversionFootprint: 690 Location: Northern California Created: 1993 Garage conversions are another way in-law apartments can be more private, and they are yet another way to maximize pre-existing space. Here, the Finch property's once-boxy garage has been modified into a cottage, notably adding a rooftop "monitor" (lengthwise cupola along the roof ridge) which serves numerous functions: light, ventilation, to make the cottage's profile less boxy, and to tie it in with the Arts and
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Garage conversion
Footprint: 690
Location: Northern California
Created: 1993

Garage conversions are another way in-law apartments can be more private, and they are yet another way to maximize pre-existing space. Here, the Finch property's once-boxy garage has been modified into a cottage, notably adding a rooftop "monitor" (lengthwise cupola along the roof ridge) which serves numerous functions: light, ventilation, to make the cottage's profile less boxy, and to tie it in with the Arts and Crafts look of the circa-1910 main house.

The newly created guest quarters also includes a window daybed alcove with storage drawers beneath, a bumped-out sun porch, and green slate flooring with radiant heat (which increases the versatility of the space, as furniture arrangement doesn't have to avoid other types of heating elements).

Bye's Over-Garage Apartment

Type: Garage conversion Footprint: 729 Location: Minnesota Created: 2004 This is a different kind of garage conversion, in which the upstairs storage loft is converted into living space. The space is sometimes known as a chauffeur's apartment, but Heidi and Jim Bye created this apartment for Jim's recently widowed father, Billy. The result was an open-plan apartment that's cozy with its fireplace, scenic with its large windows at the front gable end, and pleasantly situated, with a lake nearby.
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Garage conversion
Footprint: 729
Location: Minnesota
Created: 2004

This is a different kind of garage conversion, in which the upstairs storage loft is converted into living space. The space is sometimes known as a chauffeur's apartment, but Heidi and Jim Bye created this apartment for Jim's recently widowed father, Billy.

The result was an open-plan apartment that's cozy with its fireplace, scenic with its large windows at the front gable end, and pleasantly situated, with a lake nearby. Plenty of storage cabinetry was created under the eaves by installing knee walls, allowing the main space to remain uncluttered and appear larger. The spacious appearance, ample storage, and other pluses of these digs are fortunate, because Billy Bye is now remarried.

Green's Floating Cottage

Type: Stand-alone cottage Footprint: 433 square feet Location: Portland, Oregon Created: 2008 This floating habitation is a guesthouse for another houseboat, which owners Charlotte and Michael Green built before the main house to test the idea of living on water. Boat slips in this marina were much cheaper than building lots, and the location couldn't be better, situated near a nature preserve and minutes from downtown Portland. When it comes to the typically smaller footprints of in-law spaces,
Photo: Art Grice | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats" published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Stand-alone cottage
Footprint: 433 square feet
Location: Portland, Oregon
Created: 2008

This floating habitation is a guesthouse for another houseboat, which owners Charlotte and Michael Green built before the main house to test the idea of living on water. Boat slips in this marina were much cheaper than building lots, and the location couldn't be better, situated near a nature preserve and minutes from downtown Portland.

When it comes to the typically smaller footprints of in-law spaces, clever design can make all the difference. The Greens hired architect Russ Hamlet, a small homes specialist, who employed tricks such as choosing stairs without risers to the sleeping loft to help the limited space feel more open. The house's corrugated steel roof reflects light from privacy-protecting high windows, and green glass tiles in the shower serve the same function.

Jencks' Attic

Type: Attic Conversion Footprint: 850 square feet, including a deck Location: Northern California Created: mid-1990s Attic conversions are a good choice on small lots, and potentially economical ones if there is already enough headroom. However, it can be one of the more expensive and difficult in-law builds to undertake, and it works better for a younger family or tenants due to the stair access. Legend has it around the neighborhood of this 1908 single-story home that its attic first became a
Photo: Muffey Kibbey | "In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats " published by The Taunton Press in 2011

Type: Attic Conversion
Footprint: 850 square feet, including a deck
Location: Northern California
Created: mid-1990s

Attic conversions are a good choice on small lots, and potentially economical ones if there is already enough headroom. However, it can be one of the more expensive and difficult in-law builds to undertake, and it works better for a younger family or tenants due to the stair access.

Legend has it around the neighborhood of this 1908 single-story home that its attic first became a living space during a divorce. The husband moved upstairs and installed some handsome built-in cabinetry, but curiously didn't put in insulation. This clearly needed to change when the present owners decided to convert it to a rental apartment, in hopes of eventually moving into the apartment themselves so they can rent out the downstairs and travel more. Master carpenter Alan Jencks expanded the living space, soundproofed the floors, and added a laundry and a small roof deck.