The Tiny Addition That’s Helping This Homeowner Retire the Way We All Dream of One Day

April 27, 2023

The Tiny Addition That’s Helping This Homeowner Retire the Way We All Dream of One Day

Like many Americans today, Jocelyn Combs was worried about her retirement years.

At the time, Combs was in her early 70s, living alone in a 1,400-square-foot house in Pleasanton, CA. She knew the place was too large and hard to maintain, but she did not want to sell her house and move away from the community she had lived in for over 40 years.

Combs was also haunted by regrets about her own mother, who ultimately ended up in two different nursing homes before she passed away. Combs hoped to spend her own final years in the comfort of her own home, surrounded by friends and family.

She struck a novel solution: build a second, smaller residence on her property, otherwise known as an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU.

“The idea is to age in place,” Combs says. “That would mean [eventually] either a caregiver could move into the ADU or I could move into the ADU and my daughter and her family could move into my house. For me, it’s about having options that I didn’t have with my mother.”

Jocelyn Combs decided to build an ADU next to her Pleasanton, CA, home so she could age in place when the time comes.

(Jocelyn Combs)

How ADUs are helping homeowners age in place

According to a 2021 survey by the AARP, 77% of adults 50 and older want their current residence to be their last. Yet since many are occupying massive family homes with lots of space they no longer need, many seniors like Combs are turning to ADUs.

Also known as granny flats, guest cottages, or in-law units, ADUs come in many shapes and sizes—either attached to an existing home, detached but on the same property, or even converted from a garage or basement flat. They typically include a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and separate entrance from the main house—the perfect arrangement for seniors who want some level of independence while still keeping family nearby.

“For families looking to keep aging relatives close but provide independence, ADUs can provide a flexible solution to evolve with changing needs,” says Whitney Hill, co-founder of SnapADU, a general contractor that specializes in building ADUs in the San Diego area.

Hill adds she has had clients build an ADU for their adult children, with the intent of later moving into the ADU themselves once their children start building a family and need more space, which could be provided by the main house. Other options include using the ADU as living quarters for a 24/7 caregiver, or renting it out and using the income to offset the costs in retirement., a site dedicated to all things ADU, notes that many seniors are turning to ADUs as “part of their retirement plan.”

Combs built an ADU (seen to the right of her home) on her Pleasanton, CA, property.

(Alex Jopek)

Currently, there are an estimated 1.4 million ADUs built across the U.S., with more than half in California, Florida, Texas, and Georgia. ADUs have also seen double-digit growth since 2015 in cities where housing is in short supply, including Seattle, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Yet many states and cities place myriad regulations on ADU construction, a fact Combs learned firsthand when she first began exploring the all-in costs of building an ADU. While the unit itself would cost about $80,000, an additional $80,000 would have to go toward paying for ADU-related permits, fees, and taxes. All in all, it was so much that Combs was forced to put her ADU dreams on hold.

Yet in 2020, ADU proponents won a key victory in Combs’ state of California when law SB13 was passed, removing many of the most cumbersome and cost-prohibitive bureaucratic restrictions to building ADUs. And since then, powerful lobbying efforts by the AARP have joined in to help 17 cities pass additional legislation to make ADUs even easier to build.

In addition to easing legal restrictions on ADU construction, a growing number of companies are now stepping in to streamline the process as well.

In 2021, Combs began working with a California-based company called Cottage, paying it $185,000 to design and build a 430-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom ADU with a kitchen. To finance its construction, she used the equity she’d built in her home to do a cash-out refinance.

Cottage also helped Combs tackle Pleasanton’s permit process—a nine-month “journey” navigating the nuances of the state’s new ADU laws. Plus, COVID-19 restrictions (such as virtual meetings and remote signoffs on paperwork) as well as supply chain slowdowns caused further delays, including a four-month wait for windows to arrive.

Finally, in spring 2022, Combs was handed the keys to her tiny new domicile—which she thought looked magnificent.

“I designed the ADU as a mini version of everything I love about my house,” Combs explains. “So the move would likely be a welcome downsizing as I age in place.”

But since neither she nor her kids were quite ready to move into it yet, she has chosen to use the newly built ADU to provide affordable rental housing in her community.

Combs worked with California-based Cottage to custom-design her ADU to be a mini version of her larger home.

(Alex Jopek)

How ADUs can also help solve America’s housing shortage

In addition to helping retirees age in place, ADUs also help to curtail America’s housing shortage, providing extra residences in areas plagued by a low supply of homes and sky-high prices.

Combs, for one, knew that housing was scarce and expensive in Pleasanton, so she decided to rent out her ADU for $1,500 a month—which was a deal considering median rents in the area hover around $3,300.

Combs reached out to local nonprofits and housing groups to find her current tenant, police officer Rebecca Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Pleasanton and had been looking for affordable housing.

“I wanted to add to the affordable housing stock in Pleasanton with my ADU,” Combs says. “ADUs are the only workforce-affordable housing being built where I live. If living here, close to their job, eliminates my renter’s commuting costs, that’s a win for their lifestyle and climate change, too. Many modestly paid workers commute long distances to work here because they can’t afford to live here.”

This good deed also benefits Combs in the form of added income. And now that she has a sound retirement plan in place, she can finally relax.

“It’s huge relief to have the ADU finished, to have the option to live there when I’m older, and to have an income stream in the meantime while providing a low-income housing option for someone,” Combs says. “Win-win-win!”

Source:, Meera Pal

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