The California Granny Flat

Dated: 07/17/2019

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With surging housing demand in California, maximizing living spaces is critical in your house flips. Tacking on a ‘granny flat’ is a relatively easy way for upgrading property value, but staying compliant hasn’t always been so simple. With California’s new 2019 laws your grand plans may be saved. Here’s the breakdown of what you need to know this year: Granny Flats are known by a myriad of names. Technically, they are Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and other nicknames include in-law units, backyard cottages, secondary units, etc.  ADUs are exceptionally desirable in California due to our statewide housing needs. With the new law, homeowners who created ADUs without the proper building permits can now bring their granny flats into compliance – we can’t have Granny staying somewhere illegal on the property, obviously. 

For ADUs constructed without permits, local building officials can inspect the unit and apply the building standards that were in effect during the time the unit was constructed. You can retrospectively get a building permit for the unit with an application of the appropriate building codes and the 2019 bill: SB 1226 (Bates), Section 17958.12 of the California Health and Safety Code.Starting in 2018, California started encouraging the development of ADUs, simplifying laws around the builds. They modified utility fees and reduced parking requirements. Now you can build that backyard cottage in any zoning district that allows single-family uses and homes. 

Why consider adding a secondary unit to your flip job? Consider the following:

  • Bonus: it can be a source of income for future homeowners.

  • Large families can live together with maximum privacy.

  • They are easy to build with simple wooden framing.

  • Units are affordable for you to construct, where you do not have to pay for the land, major infrastructure, structured parking, etc.

  • With so many companies shifting to remote working, the unit can be marketed as a home office or art studio for the creative types.

  • In the traditional sense of being a granny flat, it’s a lovely option for families to take care of their seniors in a spacious, loving way.

The concept of a ‘granny flat’ comes from the dated idea that granny gets a separate but accessible living space near the original house - but what are the technical definitions?

Granny flat’s are more formerly known as ADUs - accessory dwelling units. You need the proper permits to build this add on to your property flip. Once you surpass 120 square feet and add electricity, you are technically building an ADU. Otherwise, those requirements just count as a shed.

When considering adding an additional unit to your building flip, here are some things to look out for on your initial scout of the property:

  • A detached garage - it’s easy to convert the footprint of a garage on the property.

  • Flat but deep lot - flat lots (over steep/irregular lots) are more accessible for builds and with more space, you can develop the unit a spacious distance from the main house.

  • Driveways and parking - along with the housing crisis, there’s a parking crisis to be wary of. There’s also parking regulations that we’ll touch on next.

  • Close to public transit and busy neighborhood - renters that will be attracted to a small accessory unit are most likely the type to want easy access to a community.


The parking rules are important to pay attention to. If you are building within .5 miles of public transportation, you do not need to worry about driveway restrictions. If you are not building near public transportation, which is tricky in San Diego, you’ll need parking spaces. For every bedroom added you are required to add one parking space. A parking space is defined as a hardscaped 9.5’ x 8’ space; hardscaping does not include gravel or dirt. A driveway can count as this parking space, just remember to look into the local laws referring to tandem parking. If your ADU build meets the requirements, you can get the proper building permits to bring it into compliance. In Southern California, the government is willing to work with you because of the housing shortages. 

The vast majority of the time when you’re looking into adding an accessory dwelling unit you need to make sure the lot is zoned for a single-family home. That’s the safest way to make sure the property will be a sure match for your intentions. 

Every neighborhood you build in, you’ll be dealing with different zoning aspects for ADUs. Make sure to review exactly which permits you need for each zone. Depending on the school zone or transportation fees, you’ll need to be prepared for the cost. 

Speaking of cost, it’s helpful to think of adding an ADU like adding a small house. Just because it’s small that does not mean any fewer steps. You are most likely adding on plumbing, sewage, and electrical. The smaller the unit, the higher your cost per square foot will be. Even though you will be taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in building costs, the investment in your property will be worth it.



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