What Is an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

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Brad Smith
Written By Brad Smith

An accessory dwelling unit is a real estate term for a secondary house or apartment. That secondary house or apartment shares space with a primary dwelling, usually a single-family house. The secondary house or apartment can be directly attached to the house, or it can sit separately from it on a different part of the property. This is called a detached accessory dwelling unit, or “DADU” for short.

Accessory dwelling units are often treated as housing options for the relatives of the family members living in the primary dwellings. This is why accessory dwelling units are given nicknames like in-law suites and granny flats. Homeowners can have relatives, like their senior parents, live steps away from them. This allows the family to stay connected. For instance, grandparents can be close to their grandkids and help with the early years of child-rearing. 

what is an accessory dwelling unit

Accessory dwelling units aren’t just useful for families that want to stay close together. They can also be useful for homeowners that want to bring in passive income. ADUs can be treated as rental properties. So, homeowners can act as landlords and rent their units out to people who need comfortable places to stay. Or they can turn their units into vacation rentals and host tourists visiting from all over the world. They can put up their units as rental listings on sites like Airbnb or VRBO and wait for the bookings to roll in.

How can you make an accessory dwelling unit? 

Basement Apartment

One of the most popular types of accessory dwelling units is basement apartments. A basement apartment isn’t just a finished basement that has a bedroom. It’s an apartment unit that just so happens to be on the bottom level of a house. It has to meet the same standards as an apartment situated in a multi-story building. It needs to have a functional kitchen and bathroom. It needs to meet building code standards for ceiling height and room size. It needs to have fire safety features like smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors and egress windows. 

A basement apartment also needs to have its own separate entrance. Someone should not have to go through the primary dwelling’s front or back entrance door to access the basement apartment. It needs to have its own door.

Converted Garage

It’s much easier to renovate an existing structure than to build a brand-new one from scratch. So, if you have a garage that isn’t getting much use, you can convert it into an accessory dwelling unit. A garage is already a stable, weather-resistant structure. It just needs some renovations to turn it into a comfortable living space, like adding insulation to the interior walls and installing plumbing connections for the bathroom and kitchen. 

Another ADU option is to build an apartment on top of your garage. Essentially, you’d be adding a second level to the garage building and renovating that level into a living space. This is a good choice if you need the storage space in your garage and don’t want to sacrifice that for the sake of an ADU.

If you decide to build an apartment over your garage, you will need to consider certain safety factors. For instance, you should stop using the garage as a storage unit for your car. You should put in a parking pad outside of the garage. This should minimize the risk of car exhaust seeping into the above apartment. You don’t want residents breathing that in.

backyard container home

Backyard Container Home

Do you have space in your backyard? Then, you could build a detached accessory dwelling unit there. You can construct the DADU from the ground up, just like a regular brick-and-mortar house. Or you can speed up the construction process by using a shipping container as the base structure of your DADU. 

A shipping container can make an excellent frame for your secondary dwelling. It’s extremely durable. After all, it’s designed to have other shipping containers stacked on top of it without bending or breaking. It’s wind and water-tight. It can travel through wind, rain and snow and keep its precious cargo perfectly dry. So, you can rest assured that your secondary home will be sturdy and secure.

Much like a garage, you can convert a shipping container into a living space with the help of certain renovations. You will need to make openings for windows and entrance doors, install plumbing and electrical connections, add insulation to the interior walls and more. Look at more details on building a container home to get a better idea about the construction process. Then, you’ll know exactly how you can get started on building this type of DADU in your backyard.

As you can see, there’s more than one style of ADU to choose from. You could have a basement apartment, an above-garage apartment, a converted garage or a converted container home. Pick the ADU that suits you best and put it to good use.

smith brad omni

Written by Brad Smith

CEO & Lead Interior Designer

Brad Smith is an experienced interior designer and the founder of OmniHomeIdeas.com. With a Master's degree in Interior Design from Pratt Institute and a passion for creating safe and healthy living spaces, Brad shares his expert insights and innovative design ideas with our readers. His work is driven by the belief that home is where every story begins.