Why Now May Be the Right Time to Build a Backyard Cottage

Many are downsizing to smaller homes like ADUs, Mother-In-Law's, and backyard cottages

If you currently own a home and are thinking about adding an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or more specifically,  a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU)  — commonly referred to as a secondary backyard cottage home, mother-in-law suite, or granny pad — now is definitely the time to start that process.

Why? Simply put, with affordable housing being in low supply and high demand, it’s a no-brainer!

Seattle and surrounding areas in King County, Washington, are leading the charge in a nationwide movement of municipal code changes with the goal of relaxing building code policies which previously restricted home owners from building small homes or accessory dwelling units in their backyards. With the ever-increasing demands on housing, cities and counties are required by law to provide affordable housing and part of the solution is using the extra unused land space in the backyards of homes.

Following Seattle, the City of Tacoma is going to allow ADUs to be built in all residential zones. In fact, Tacoma has created a new ordinance, which is working its way through the public hearing process before City Council approves it, to allow detached accessory dwelling units in all residential zones. This means that your neighbor’s old eyesore of a garage in the alley may soon be demolished and you will see a brand-new, fresh garage with an apartment above in its place, changing the visual aesthetics of your neighborhood and increasing property values for homeowners.

Or, that run-down open backyard with the abandoned garden and broken swing set may soon be an income-producing small DADU second home that creates more income for the property owner, provides beautiful (and affordable!) housing for renters, and provides additional housing for the City as mandated by the Washington State Growth Management Act. And, all of this is achieved without building undesirable tall apartments which can diminish the look of a community and negatively impact property values. These ADUs add to the owner’s property value as well as neighboring property values. It’s considered a Win-Win-Win by the City and residents.

Home Styles and ADU Designs
Small homes have one challenge. They are designed to fit into a small space. When you have a backyard with limited size (less than 3,500 square feet) the side yard setbacks, rear yard setbacks and primary home setbacks really narrow the building envelope. Not to mention the underground utility lines (water, sewer, gas, and electrical) plus on-site storm water management.

Then, you must take into account height restrictions, architectural design ordinances to match the neighborhood characteristics, etc. In addition, every square inch of interior space is at a premium on a small home.

If your home is 4,000 square feet, there are lots of spaces to put furniture. In 400 square feet however, the home must be carefully designed and laid out so everything fits. There can be no wasted space. Everything must be efficient and yet feel open and unconfined. It is critical when building a small home that you don’t skimp on the necessities that may seem insignificant up front but later will become critical components. 

How do you create the ideal ADU home or mother-in-law suite, that’s small and efficient, yet still feels open and spacious? The primary way to accomplish this is through the use of taller ceilings. Many homebuilders save money and build a home with an 8′ ceiling. In a small home, this height will make you feel cramped and confined. But a 9′ ceiling will create that open, airy feeling and you will not feel like you need to leave the home to get some space. 

Secondly, don’t skimp on windows. Walls don’t have to be enclosed walls. Choose a plan that has lots of windows and taller windows. Not only does natural sunlight lower Northwest energy heating costs, more windows in a home will let in fresh air and provide refreshing cross ventilation. Windows let in the warming natural light that gives you the natural vitamin D that no vitamin D pill can ever fully replace.

Washingtonians know about seasonal depression all too well. Natural light gives you a better sense of well-being and overall sense of happiness. We can’t overstate the benefits of large windows in a small home. Make sure your ADU builder offers lots of windows in your new home along with taller 9’ ceilings.

Home Builder Resources

If you are thinking about building an ADU (ADU Builder) and are looking for some home builders, here are a few that you may want to consider: HiLine Homes (HiLine Homes), Adair Homes, Reality Homes, True Built Homes (True Built), Lexar Homes, and Coval Homes. There are also a handful of other “on your lot” home builders. 

An ADU builder that truly specializes in ADUs will offer the greatest number of stock plans to choose from with a wide variety of plan styles. Diggs Custom Homes (customdiggs.com) is the largest ADU/DADU home builder, offering the most home selections with various shapes and sizes of homes that will fit into almost any backyard. All of their ADU/small home plans come with 9’ ceilings and plenty of windows.

When looking into building a small backyard home, be sure to research what work is and isn’t included. Some builders like HiLine Homes require the homeowner to do most of the ground preparation work and even paint the home. Other builders like Diggs Custom Homes are turnkey builders where they do most of the work and offer a full turnkey program, meaning the homeowner does no work at all.

City and County Building Code Regulations

Following is a list of many of the Cities and Towns where you might be looking to build a small backyard cottage. Each area may have its own regulations, which can differ from the County regulations. An in-depth study is required before hiring a home builder. Some home builders may offer a feasibility study, which is a valuable service to ensure you know that the building jurisdiction will allow you to build the backyard cottage and also what the various setbacks and conditions are. Ask your home builder or General Contractor (GC) to conduct a feasibility study before hiring them to build a home. 

You will also want to have a full feasibility study completed before you buy land. Buying land takes a lot of due diligence and careful research. A good highly rated home builder in Washington will help you through the entire process.

Here are some helpful search terms for ADU new homebuilders and general contractors in the following areas.

Find Home Builders in Pierce County Cities and Towns 

Find Home Builders in King County Cities and Towns

Find Home Builders in Thurston County Cities and Towns 

Find Home Builders in Kitsap County Cities and Towns 

Find Home Builders in Mason County Cities and Towns 

Find Home Builders in Lewis County Cities and Towns 

Find Home Builders in Greys County Cities and Towns 

Author Details
Principal , Diggs Custom Homes
Don’s love of all things real estate has motivated him to spend the last 30 years in buying, building and selling, rehabbing, flipping, lending, Developing land and large scale plats and is a nationally recognized award-winning real estate professional.
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Principal , Diggs Custom Homes
Don’s love of all things real estate has motivated him to spend the last 30 years in buying, building and selling, rehabbing, flipping, lending, Developing land and large scale plats and is a nationally recognized award-winning real estate professional.
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