Covid-19 makes small backyard homes a viable alternative for parents, grandparents

The pandemic has forced many families to make a difficult choice: Should elderly parents stay in retirement communities or nursing homes, or should they be brought to live at home?D

ad move in after 50 years living separately may not seem like an ideal situation for everyone's privacy and sanity. But, by some estimates, more than 40% of deaths from covid-19 have been of people in nursing homes or residential-living facilities for the elderly. Faced with a difficult choice, families are landing on an alternate solution: Put up a separate, tiny house in their backyard.

That's what Jen Parsons decided to do in Redwood City, California. A retirement community with lots of activities would have been ideal for Parsons' widowed mother. "But when covid-19 hit it was like, what are we thinking?" Parsons said.

So she went with a $230,000 "accessory dwelling unit" or ADU-more commonly known as a granny or in-law flat, alley flat or coach house. In a few months when the construction is complete, she won't have to worry about her mother getting home safely after dinner with the family. Her mother, who is in her 70s, will just walk about 15 feet across the backyard to the stylish, 495-square-foot space.

Unlike basic sheds or semifinished pool houses, these units often have a bedroom area, full kitchen and bathroom. They can be stand-alone structures or over garages. Some owners rent them out for extra income.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of households have included several generations, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. The data show that 20% of people in 2016 lived in a multigenerational household, up from 12% in 1980, and it rose quickly after the 2008 recession.

The mini homes have long been talked about as a possible form of affordable housing, particularly in expensive coastal areas. Now, "they are all of a sudden being talked about in the context of Covid-for providing options for granny, because granny shouldn't be living with other seniors in an assisted-living facility," said Kol Peterson, author of "Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development."

There was momentum even before Covid toward allowing these structures, which are often forbidden or highly restricted by town building codes. "It seems like almost every day there is a new municipality making it easier," said Mike Koenig, co-founder of Studio Shed, which builds these units. Legislation that took effect this year in California and Oregon makes building them easier and more appealing to homeowners. Chicago is considering allowing them.

The souped-up sheds can cost as much as a full house. The average cost of a custom-built unit in California is about $250,000, Peterson said. Approval and installation can take anywhere from a few months, in cities where building permits are processed quickly, to a year and a half for some custom-built designs.

Basic units cost around $120,000 installed, but higher-end ones can be $300,000 or more for larger, more highly designed units. In some areas, like around Silicon Valley, luxury units can run to $1 million. Some come premade - largely built in a factory and then quickly put together on site - while others are built from scratch.

Parsons noted how sharing groceries and meals would be easier, and that maybe she'll be able to send the kids over in the evening while she and her husband "have a glass of wine together and actually talk. Hopefully a win-win for all. My mom will hopefully get valuable time with the grandkids, and we will get a little pressure off in these unprecedented times."