The suite life of secondary dwelling units | Inman News


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Book Review
Title: “In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide for Turning One House into Two Homes
Author: Michael Litchfield
Publisher: The Taunton Press, 2011; 224 pages; $24.95

Before I begin discussing the lovely, useful guide to creating secondary living spaces in your home that is habitual rehabber Michael Litchfield’s “In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide for Turning One House into Two Homes” (The Taunton Press, 2011), I’d like to make a small advisory note to my parents: This is not an invite.

With that said, because the realm of real estate consumers who are seriously in the market to add a mother-in-law apartment is likely smaller than that of people who have some interest in the real estate recession, “In-laws” will likely receive short shrift on the bookstore shelves. But if you ask me, this book might be one of the timeliest real estate how-to’s that has hit the market in recent times.

“In-laws” is about putting extra space in a home you already own to optimal use, whether by converting an attic, basement or “granny flat,” or by building an entirely new living unit on your existing home’s lot.

Though the title skews toward moving Mom and Dad in, which is a strong post-recessionary trend in its own right, these spaces can be rented out, used as home offices by those trying to save on gas or work the freelance gigs they’ve been working in the wake of a job loss, or even lived in — as the author does — by the owner, who can then rent out the main house.

“In-laws” is for today’s homeowners who have decided to stay put instead of trying to lock in their real estate losses, but need to get some extra mileage out of their homes; it’s for today’s parents of young adults, who’d like them to move out — but just a little bit; and it’s for today’s baby boomers trying to retire on shrunken home equity and financial portfolios.

Not only is “In-laws” timely and useful, it is beautiful and complete. Conceptually, yes — but also textually and visually. Litchfield briefly lays out some bullet point uses for in-law units, as he uses the term to apply to all secondary living spaces (which contain a kitchen and bathroom), but then really proves the point with the selection of diverse case studies he uses to populate the rest of the book, from a basement in-law unit in a Beverly Hills Mediterranean, to a garage conversion on a suburban, brown-shingle Craftsman.

These homes didn’t just add secondary spaces, they added amazing secondary spaces, with complete independence from the “main house” and features like kitchen-area daybed niches and spa-quality, if small, bathrooms.

Throughout “In-laws,” Litchfield goes beyond providing stunning before-and-after photos, to address the physical, psychological and lifestyle implications of adding an occupied secondary living unit, from the challenges of incorporating ramps and other aging-in-place amenities, to the sound and privacy issues arising from sharing space, to parents’ concerns about feeling like a burden, to adult children’s relief at having their parents nearby — and offers questionnaires to assess whether this sort of arrangement might work for you, as well as design solutions to these emotional concerns.

Additionally, when it comes to building and redesigning home spaces, Litchfield has clearly been there and done that, and you can see it in the highly useful floor plans, land use and building permit discussions, and his coverage of attractive-yet-space-saving appliances and even furniture, in “In-laws.” Litchfield’s case studies and advice also skew a bit green, with loads of recycled concrete, tankless water heaters and drip systems featured throughout.

If only every design/real estate book did such a complete — and completely lovely — treatment of its niche as “In-laws” does.

I’ve tired of making real estate predictions. But I will predict that this book will save some homeowners thousands of dollars, help some family relationships (and small businesses, for that matter) thrive, and save some people from ending up in the dreaded “home” (as in rest home).

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of “The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook” and “Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions.” Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website,



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