What is a “granny flat”?
I learn a lot about real estate in other regions from my buyer clients who are moving to the Philadelphia area. The things they assume, the questions they ask, as well as the questions they don’t ask all provide a window into the kinds of neighborhoods they came from and what they consider “normal”. Several of my buyers coming from the western United States ask about building ADUs. These accessory dwelling units are small, ancillary residential buildings that are added to a lot where there is already a house. They are often known as granny flats and are usually intended to house a family member, though, in certain areas, they are also rentable to tenants.
Who wants an ADU?
During COVID, there was a huge spike in demand for multi-generational residences. People wanted to be able to spend time with extended family in a comfortable way. Lots of additions were built, basements were finished as independent living spaces, often with not only bathrooms, but kitchens as well. Clearly, the ADU is a perfect candidate for enabling a property owner to accommodate, perhaps long-term, additional people (whether family or not).
Can you have one in the Philadelphia area?
Imagine how disappointed my clients were when I told them “we can’t do that here”. It’s true! And it’s not related to exceeding impervious surface allowances. Even with a large lot, they are not permitted. You can find them on some of the old estates on the Main Line, but those are grandfathered and usually at least 75 years old. The township officials were not able to provide any reason for this restriction, but most areas in PA are the sam. (There is a variance for historical properties within the city of Philadelphia, intended to allow more density on some of those properties without compromising the historical architecture.)
What ADU alternatives are there?
What can you do? You can build an addition, you can convert your basement (though it has to meet specific egress guidelines which vary township to township) and you can repurpose an attached garage into living space. While I can’t speak to every locale, every township I’ve asked has said that detached garages can’t be converted. That said, I’ve seen several apartments above garages. From my research, they are not allowed to be used for living space (meaning sleeping, having a bathroom or kitchen) and I expect some of the ones I’ve seen may not be technically legal.
Will granny flats ever be allowed here?
The ADU (provided it adheres to impervious surface allowances) strikes me as a such a great option. I wonder if our local ordinances don’t allow for ADUs simply because those structures started becoming popular somewhat recently and our zoning codes are old? Or if rules and regulations governing them are not on the books because there hasn’t been a demand for them? I don’t know. However, there is, undeniably, a burgoening increase in people looking for separate accommodations that can house people for extended periods of time. Whether due to the desire for family togetherness, or the financial burden many people are feeling to maintain a household, especially if on a fixed income, I think there will be more and more demand for this kind of housing. I wonder if we will see a change in the local legality of these structures.