Finding a place with some kind of rental option was a prerequisite for the couple.
A rowhouse with an English basement would have done the trick, but they really wanted something with a convertible garage. “These are much harder to come by, finding a detached structure,” Jay Fazio says. “We prefer to have someone outside the main house so we can still utilize the full three floors.”
According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, the Washington region needs to add 374,000 housing units by 2030. Some homeowners, including the Fazios, are hedging their bets by transforming garages, carriage houses, English basements and tracts of barren land into granny flats, apartments and flex living space — collectively known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs.
Although Fazio preferred to manage the remodeling process, he also realized the need for getting help with design and permitting. He was referred to architect Ileana Schinder, principal at Ileana Schinder PLLC based in Takoma Park, Md., by the Coalition for Smarter Growth located in the District.
In many ways there’s nothing new about the concept of an ADU, but a change in District zoning laws in 2016 made adding one much simpler. Since the zoning change, Schinder has done 21 ADU-related projects.
“The allowance to build an ADU was always there, but you had to file for a variance,” Schinder says. “That created a lot of paperwork and a lot of misunderstandings so it was a discouragement — it added months and months of paperwork.”
The Fazios bought their house in September 2018 for $590,000. They also incorporated a rehabilitation loan for $150,000 to cover the cost of converting the two-car garage into a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom rental unit. The couple imagined a hip space in the alley, but having to stay within the limitations of the existing garage put a stop to that idea.
“Originally we were thinking of doing a lofted bedroom out there and have an open floor plan down below, but the requirements for the structural load is significantly more than what the building could handle and the head clearance was a problem as well,” Fazio says.
Settling on a design that sacrificed the loft bedroom took three rounds of back and forth between the designer and client. The completed plans then went to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).
The Fazios had heard that the average length of plan review was six months but that having a designer on board who was familiar with the process cut it to three challenging months. “The DCRA weren’t as responsive as they should be,” Fazio says. “They are given times for each cycle of review to give you a response — they never got me a response in the expected time frame.”
Schinder typically submits a plan for an ADU once a month and uses the questions and concerns raised on past proposals to try to anticipate what’s likely to come up again. She still says that the agency, lenders, real estate agents and homeowners are all climbing the same ADU learning curve. “Even between the client, architect and builder, these types of buildings mark that relationship differently than any other,” she says.
With the plans finally approved, the Fazios collected bids from three contractors, picked Jaquino Construction and began work in January 2019. Free-standing ADUs are subject to the same building codes and zoning regulations as a full-sized house. Conversely, they do not have their own address and are not deeded separately. They cannot be bought, sold or gambled away.
Construction began on the Fazio project by digging two trenches through the backyard from the main house to the ADU, one for electricity, which is metered separately, and another for the water supply line and the connection to the sewer.
The garage’s existing doorway, which faced the alley, was removed and the hole was replaced with an exterior wall. Eleven windows, a mix of clerestory and operable, were cut into the walls along with a door on the side of the former garage and a second sliding door on the side that faces the main house. A sliding gate was added next to the garage as two new parking spaces were carved out of the backyard and surfaced with gravel. Zoning doesn’t permit a site losing parking spaces.
Exterior sheathing on the ADU is cedar shake shingles painted to match the main house. A finish was applied to the concrete floor. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are provided by a mini-split system. Insulation was added and interior walls were framed in using drywall. The building’s side door serves as the front door that opens into a spacious-feeling main room sheltered by a cathedral ceiling with exposed beams.
Schinder, who likens the kitchen layout to “a boat kitchen,” handled the interior design and scaled things down to make everything fit. “None of the equipment in the kitchen is 30 inches wide, everything is 24,” she says. “Except the dishwasher, which is 18 inches.” The mini-sized gear was all acquired from Blomberg appliances, based in Germany.
The semi-custom wood cabinets from Cliqstudios are finished in white, and the countertop and backsplash are quartz. An interior wall separates the kitchen from the laundry area, bedroom and bath that features a free-standing vanity. Black porcelain tile surrounds the shower.
Before the project was complete Fazio ran ads on Craigslist and Reddit using Schinder’s renderings to showcase the space. “We had a dozen people interested in the first week,” Fazio says. The selected tenant is now in place and paying $1,975 a month. Fazio says the rent is “as high as anybody is paying for a one-bedroom in this neighborhood.”
The Fazios pay the water bill and include free WiFi. There’s no natural gas service to the ADU, and the tenant pays his or her own electric bill.
Building an ADU or converting a basement into one is usually not as easy as it sounds. The rule of thumb for construction costs is $250 to $300 per square foot. The concept has become popular in other parts of the country, and some builders are offering pre-fab ADU kits that can be dropped into a backyard, but caveats exist for what looks like the easy way out.
“Most prefab kits exclude site work, foundations and local building code requirements,” says Schinder, “and retrofitting the kits multiplies the expense.”
Schinder says she believes any type of ADU should be evaluated with a good dose of common sense and a look toward the future.
“It’s a significant real estate investment — it’s another way to invest money that will affect the long-term house planning that has to align itself with how you see the house as an investment and a lifestyle,” she says.
For the Fazios, the big plus of the ADU is helping them achieve some financial peace of mind and sparking thoughts about their future. “My favorite part is the breathing room that it provides,” Jay says. “I want to find another property like this and do the same thing.”