'Granny pods' become a solution for retirees with limited budgets

Key Points
  • The micro-living trend has found a receptive audience in seniors, who need affordable living options
  • "Granny pods" are 400-square-foot houses with all the trimmings of a real house, but can fit in a backyard.
  • "I can't foresee leaving here until I'm dead," one retiree told CNBC.
Grannie pods
Grannie pods

Like many boomers, Jane Baldwin faced a difficult question: "Where do I go next?"

The 67-year-old retiree was living alone in Wyoming, and had grown tired of cold winters. She wanted to be closer to her family in Oakland, California.

Not ready to give up her independence entirely by sharing a roof with family — but also unable to purchase another property thanks in part to the Bay Area's notoriously high cost of housing — Baldwin decided to look no further than the backyard. Her answer was to build a 400-square-foot "granny pod."

"I am in love with it," said Baldwin. "I can't foresee leaving here until I'm dead."

The tiny house is built for accessibility and includes a living room, galley kitchen as well as bedroom. Its hallways and doorways are wide enough for a wheel chair should Baldwin ever need one. All the floors are even eliminating tripping hazards and the shower stall is a walk-in.

400-square-foot "Granny Pods"
Source: Inspired Independence

Baldwin's story could become more common. The American population is aging rapidly, with the number of older Americans expected to double in the next three decades, reaching 88 million people by 2050, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Of that number, a 2016 Genworth study estimated that 70 percent will need some form of long-term care, something Medicare doesn't cover. It's why deciding where these older Americans will age is often a difficult family conversation fraught with financial and emotional issues.

"If people can age in place and age at home it's much healthier, and the family is happier, but it can be very expensive," said Carolyn McClanahan, a financial planner at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. "Granny pods can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000. So you got to weigh longevity in there with it."

With the cost of skilled nursing care reaching nearly $93,000 a year, a granny pod may make more financial sense if you expect the person living there to stay for several years.

However, it's important to also weigh the individual's cognitive health. Someone with dementia or in need of help with daily tasks is not a good granny pod candidate, McClanahan added.

400-square foot ‘Granny Pods’.
Source: Inspired Independence

While older Americans are building granny pods for themselves, some also see them as a long-term solution for multigenerational living.

"I met with this family the other night, and their adult son would live in the in-law unit but we are designing it to age in place," said Carrie Shores, an architect with Inspired Independence in Oakland who built Baldwin's pod.

"When they're tired of maintaining their home, they'll move in there, and by that point he may be married and have kids and move into the main house," she added.

For Baldwin, who just unpacked her boxes and is making her pod a home, the choice to simplify was the right one.

"I just think all of us, but myself in particular, have too much stuff in our lives and I welcome the chance to downsize."

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