Homebuyers Guide Real Estate

Tiny Homes, Granny Pods, and Mother-in-Law Suites: All About Small Dwellings

The tiny home trend has had surprising staying power. Just look at what’s on television—HGTV premiered “Tiny House Hunters” and A&E aired “Tiny House Nation” back in 2014. Fast forward five or so years, and tiny house programming includes shows like “Tiny House, Big Living,” “Tiny Luxury,” “Tiny Paradise,” and “Tiny House World,” to name a few (seriously, there are even more shows about tiny homes). 

Of course, if you really go back, one could argue, as Curbed does, that the tiny home movement started in 1854, when transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau published “Walden.” In the book, Thoreau chronicles his time in a 150-square-foot cabin and praises simple, modest living. As Curbed says, it’s somewhat of “a blueprint to tiny house enthusiasts.”

The concept of living large in small confines has captivated American audiences arguably for 150 years, but there’s a big difference between reading about it or watching it on TV and having tiny-home living play out in real life. If you think you can truly go tiny, it’s helpful to know the different types of small dwellings available and the benefits and challenges of each one. 

For many people, opting to build a different type of tiny home, such as a mother-in-law suite or granny pod, can help facilitate care for aging parents, special-needs adult children or any other family members, and increase the resale value—all while allowing you to keep precious square footage.

What are tiny homes?

Let’s start off with the biggest catch-all term: tiny homes. There’s not a legal or formally accepted definition of what constitutes a tiny home, but typically these dwellings are under 500 square feet. If you intend to take your tiny home on the road, there are maximum road limits to consider.

According to Tiny House Design, most U.S. states set a maximum highway size of 13.5 feet tall, 8.5 feet wide, and 40 feet long with a maximum length of 65 feet including tow vehicle. The site also notes that weight comes into play: Commercial travel trailers are designed to be lightweight, whereas tiny homes are built from heavy building materials just like any normal house. In other words, you’ll need a heavy-duty specialty trailer or tow vehicle. 

Tiny homes are typically intended as stand-alone properties rather than as a complement to a larger single-family home. As for the other types of tiny homes, any dwelling under 500 square feet is fair game: Even RVs and houseboats could fall under this loose definition. Other common types are converted buses, shipping containers, small cabins (like Thoreau’s) and, of course, the custom-built tiny homes all over TV. 

What are granny pods?

If a tiny home is anything under 500 square feet, a granny pod fits within this definition. Still, it’s distinct from the types of tiny homes outlined above.

Granny pods—also known as “accessory dwelling units”—are small, prefabricated homes between 300 and 500 square feet that usually reside in the backyard of a larger property. The granny pod shares all utilities like water, sewer, and power with the main house and typically includes a bedroom, small living room, kitchenette and a bathroom. Similar to a tiny home, its modular design means it’s usually portable.

The name “granny pod” comes from the typical use of this small dwelling: Granny pods are meant as a place to live for elderly parents or family members who need to be nearby but prefer separate quarters than a mother-in-law suite (more on those below). Since granny pods are often portable, they’re a great option for families with elderly relatives who may decide to move at some point: The granny pod can come along for the ride.

According to BobVila.com, it’s important to determine the feasibility of adding a granny pod or accessory dwelling unit before you invite Grandma to move in. In new developments and neighborhoods with homeowner’s associations, granny pods might not be allowed.

Moreover, each city and county has zoning boards that regulate how much yard space you’ll need in order to add a granny pod—even if these accessory dwelling units are allowed in your neighborhood, your yard still needs to be large enough to meet the zoning board’s requirements. Your city planning office should be able to illuminate if your property is eligible and the types of permits you’ll need. 

What are mother-in-law suites?

Just as you don’t need a Granny to have a granny pod, you don’t need a mother-in-law to have a mother-in-law suite. However, these types of suites—equipped with a fully functional living space, bathroom, kitchenette and bedroom—are attractive for multigenerational families living under one roof.

Mother-in-law suites are typically connected to the main property and are not pre-fabricated, which sets them apart from the other types of small dwellings listed above.

The idea, though, is pretty much the same: a separate space for an aging family member (or any other type of friend or family member) who can retain autonomy yet remain close by if any needs arise. Mother-in-law suites are also of practical use for families with young children who require live-in nannies and au pairs.

Average Costs of Small Dwellings

According to Reader’s Digest, tiny homes have an average cost of $30,000 to $40,000. Of course, tricked-out tiny homes can go for much higher—the article estimates up to $180,000.

Because granny pods are also pre-fabricated, their average cost is about the same at the $30,000 mark. BobVila.com notes that homeowners in the main property should be prepared for a spike in utility bills, since the pods use the same water and sewage.

Same goes for mother-in-law suites. These suites can be more affordable since they often come right along with an existing home, but adding a mother-in-law suite has a higher price tag, with an average cost of between about $33,000 and $63,000, according to Dolly.com.

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