In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide To Turning One House Into Two Homes

In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide To Turning One House Into Two Homes

by Mike Litchfield. Taunton Press, 2011. Paperback, 224 pp., 200 color photos, $24.95

Mike Litchfield has just written a very important book on building, not just for its subject matter, but for its timeliness in this era of tightening incomes. The subtitle says it well: “Your guide to turning one house into two homes.”

There’s a growing need for sensible and affordable shelter in North America these days, and Mike, the first editor of Fine Homebuilding, and the author of the bestselling book Renovation, has put together an immensely useful book here.

The book addresses a real need. For one (big) thing, baby boomers’ parents are aging, and a cottage in the yard or an apartment above the garage beats a rest home or a retirement condo in both financial and human terms.

In many cases, for the cost of renting a house or apartment for a few years, or for the cost of an elder and/or loved one in a rest home, you can create a rent-free or mortgage-free home. The book covers, in this order:

1. Is an in-law right for you?

2. Design of in-laws

3. Choosing appliances, fixtures, and materials

4. Plans and permits

5. Methods of construction, and the pros and cons of each:

a. Basement units

b. Garage conversions

c. Stand-alone units

d. Bump-outs, carve-outs, and attics

6. Current sources for finding architects, green materials, and products

The section on obtaining plans and permits alone is worth the price of admission. I’m often asked, “How can I get a permit to build a small home?” This book shows you how. The fact is, that up until now, most in-laws in the US have been illegal. But with the growing need of an aging population, and the growing desire of (some) townships and municipalities to provide low-cost housing, there’s a move towards legalizing second units. This is the most coherent and helpful description of getting through the planning department and the building inspector I’ve seen anywhere.

To tell you the truth, I’ve dodged permits and planning departments as much as possible, but I do believe in the need for structural safety and competent construction. The trick is to find the sensible amount of planning and building code compliance. This book makes a case for getting permits. And I have to face it, in spite of the fact that a lot of structures in our building books are wild and/or crazy and often not code-complying, a lot of people would rather be legal. A friend said to me abut this book, “This is the real world.”

Maybe it will help cities, towns, and counties in establishing sensible requirements for low-cost second-unit housing. (I heard the other day that planning and permits in Marin County (Calif.) are over $50,000– bureaucracy running amok.) Several forward-looking areas that encourage 2nd units are Portland, Oregon; Santa Cruz, California; Seattle, Washington; and Vancouver, BC, Canada,

The book is not only practical, but the photos show a lot of places with natural wood, carpets, sunshine through windows, and nice landscaping. The aesthetics are a welcome relief to much of what’s shown in today’s architectural media.

This book is going to be around and helpful forever.


Check out Mike’s website of small space design:

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

7 Responses to In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide To Turning One House Into Two Homes

  1. Looks like a good book. In the county I live there is a limit to how many "accessory building" permits are issued. It allows for habitable buildings up to 1,000 sf to be added to existing residentially zoned and built upon properties. In years past one might have to wait a year or two to get one. In this economy there are permits to spare and the cities, municipalities and counties I have worked with recently are MUCH more accommodating than they have been in years past… Being revenue starved has definitely improved the customer service… Tis a good time to be in the market as a buyer as homes are typically selling for less than they can be built. I sure wish I was in a tax bracket capable of taking advantage of that.

  2. "To tell you the truth, I've dodged permits and planning departments as much as possible, but I do believe in the need for structural safety and competent construction." This would apply to my life as an Owner/Builder also. My approach would be to get the easy permits such as adding a porch or shed to get to know a permit department and let them get to know me and then wing it where I could. And keep a low profile- don't let your building site look like a building site. Be creative.
    Also I would get as small a permit at a time as I could to expedite getting it out of the department because: (1) larger projects require more signatures, (2) as an owner builder I was very slow and all permits have time limitations. For instance, if I wanted to build a casita and it was visible to the street or neighbors I would get a permit for a shed and later on turn it into a living quarters. Or keep it small enough that where we lived no permit was necessary (150 Sq. ft. or less). If you are turned in it will most likely be by a neighbor so always be a good neighbor and as Bob Dylan said "…when you see your neighbor help him with his load…"
    I trust my work but safety is of the utmost importance- if you don't know how to do something pay for expert help, and watch and learn for the next time. I would always hire plumbers who worked by themselves so I could be their helper. Everything was ready when they got to the site.
    Also liability is a concern for the builder if any problems occur, either while that builder owns it or a later owner. The larger planning departments keep very accurate records on each property using aerial photos and records of all permits issued- they know the history of building on a property and now that they are slow some are playing catch up.
    And finally once I got my permit from the office I never had problems with the field inspectors. They know a clean, well organized building site with better than professional work when they see it.

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