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SUITE Success

The venerable 'granny flat' is being reborn as buyers and home builders explore ways to house today's evolving families.

May 18, 1997|DIRK SUTRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Dirk Sutro is a San Diego freelance writer

As the American family evolves to include single parents, grandparents, stepchildren and adult children who have returned home, the venerable "granny flat" has been reborn with a new, broader identity as the accessory apartment or second unit.

In California, 44 cities and 17 counties, under a state mandate, have adopted ordinances allowing accessory units in single-family homes--either within the house or standing alone--in established and new neighborhoods.

Several Northern California cities have been especially supportive of second units.

Among those with ordinances permitting second units on single-family properties are Belvedere, Corte Madera, Fairfax, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Carmel, Novato, Ross, Sausalito, Sacramento and Tiburon. About half allow detached structures; the others require attached units.

In Southern California, Los Angeles discourages granny flats, under the pressure of politically powerful homeowner associations that fear the effect the units might have in established neighborhoods.

San Diego is revising an ordinance to allow them, and Orange, Riverside, San Juan Capistrano and Encinitas have laws that encourage them.

In the vanguard of the granny flat resurgence are several Southland home builders, led by Taylor Woodrow Homes. The developers have found that buyers want accessory units to accommodate their families as they evolve.

And several architects of merchant-built housing say they are drawing more tract homes with second units.

According to some experts, second units--whether used as rentals, for family or as offices--are an economical way for homeowners to get more out of their homes, and for communities to get more out of their neighborhoods, without the need for new roads and utilities.

"A typical accessory apartment within a home can be created for about one-third the cost of building a conventional rental unit," said Patrick Hare, a Washington, D.C.-based land use planner and granny-flat advocate who consults with developers and city planning departments across the country.

"And one-third of the homes in the United States have enough space for a rental unit, space that families aren't using," Hare said.

"While a lot of homeowners reject granny flats out of hand, they actually make the single-family home work better for families. It allows them to buy sooner, by subsidizing their payment with a rental unit, and it allows them to stay longer--they don't have to move as the house becomes too much for them."

Southland home builders are finding that accessory units make good business sense in their new developments.

"There's clearly demand," said architect Bob Hidey, whose Newport Beach firm designed plans for about 1,000 new tract homes in 1996.

New projects designed by Hidey with second units include California Pacific's new development on the Newport Coast in Newport Beach, Catellus Development's Ridgecrest development in Diamond Bar, Shappell Industries' Fairway Bridge in San Ramon in Northern California, and Taylor Woodrow's Mahogany in Irvine, Bellacere in San Juan Capistrano and Marfiore in Carlsbad. These granny flats range in size from 250 to 1,000 square feet.

"In excess of 50% of the projects we're doing, we are providing a separate suite that has its own access. It's not always, as at Mahogany, on the second floor, but they're configured to have separate, isolated entrances," Hidey said, often on the first floor, as a unit that will serve an elderly relative.

"In many communities today we're responding to an Asian buyer and they want separate units because they have more elderly folks living with them.

"On plans, we don't show them with kitchens, but we make it very easy to bring in a kitchenette after the fact. It's not always a requirement. These are really designed for extended family conditions."

While most cities don't allow builders to include kitchens in accessory units, homeowners often bootleg them in later, since plumbing and power are easily accessed.

Demand for accessory units has been so strong that some new developments have changed project plans in mid-stream.

"Originally, a little more than a third of the 54 homes at Mahogany provided a granny suite," Hidey said. "As we moved forward, we tried to place as many into the project as we could. With three of the buyers, we have come back and added square footage to that suite."

Santa Barbara architect Berry Berkus, who has designed hundreds of Southland tract homes, said he did his first accessory units at Huntington Harbour in Huntington Beach about 1970.

Those homes came with detached apartments with sinks and refrigerators--but not ovens, which would make them count as second units. Over the years, granny flats have often come equipped with utility service and plumbing, so that owners can add kitchens or baths later.

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