Accessory Dwelling Units

Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC

Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC

When I was young, most students kept their violins in compact, violin-shaped cases made of wood or molded plastic. Those cases held only two bows, and it was a challenge to fit a shoulder rest and extra strings in them.

When I purchased a professional-level violin, it came with a larger, rectangular, wood case. Those larger cases, which could carry up to four bows, extra strings, shoulder rest, supplies, and music, as well as built-in shoulder strap, were favored by the professional violinists of the time.

The trend in violin cases now has reverted to small, violin-shaped cases made of light, high-tech materials. Small cases are light and easy to carry. However, like the small cases of my youth, the modern violin-shaped cases carry only two bows. While they may have room for extra strings, many have no room for a shoulder rest, and none can carry music.

The lack of space in modern violin cases has created a new market–for case accessories. Now, violinists can buy shoulder rest pouches, music bags, and straps and covers that turn their small, lightweight cases into a backpack.

Although violin case accessories, as they are known, result in more individual items, they provide the musician with more flexibility. They can buy the accessories that meet their individual needs. Plus, they can adjust the bulk of their violin case to adapt to situations. The smaller cases, without accessory bags, fit well into overhead bins in airplanes.

Homeowners, like violinists, are finding that home accessory dwelling units (ADU) help them meet their needs. Young families with two parents working outside of the home may find that a live-in nanny is more economical and convenient than daycare. Formerly empty nesters may face a newly refilled nest as aging parents or adult children move in with them. And, in areas where housing is expensive, the ability to occasionally rent an ADU might provide the extra cash that makes home ownership affordable.

What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

An ADU, also sometimes known as a “granny apartment” or “in-law apartment,” is a smaller residential dwelling unit on the same real estate parcel as a single-family home. An ADU should including a full bathroom and a cooking area, and a living/sleeping area.

ADUs usually will have the same street address as the home. They might have a separate entrance, but they will always be subordinate to the primary residential unit.

ADUs are not a new concept. Carriage houses, guest houses, in-law suites, and basement apartments all can be ADUs. Carriage houses and guest houses and other standalone buildings are called “separate ADUs.” Basements, in-law suites, and other apartments inside the footprint of the principal residential unit are called “attached ADUs.” Attached ADUs may further be divided into two categories: ADUs created by a separate addition to the house, and ADUs inside the main footprint of the house, such as basement or attic apartments.

ADUs differ from traditional duplexes, which usually contain two comparable residential units with separate entrances and street addresses. ADUs typically share their street address with the single-family home and may not have a separate entrance. Plus, although many duplexes are investment rental real estate not occupied by their owners, most zoning laws require that the property owner reside in the home where the ADU is located.

ADUs and Zoning and Planning

Although ADUs can both benefit homeowners and provide much-needed moderately-priced housing, they are not without detractors. ADUs increase population density by allowing more family units to reside on a lot. Neighboring homeowners sometimes aren’t happy to find the streets, on-street parking, schools, and local stores more crowded due to an influx of ADU residents.

ADUs may be regulated at the state or local level or both. Maryland authorizes local governments to adopt ADU laws, and in Maryland, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, and St. Mary’s counties have ADU legislation. The District of Columbia also allows ADUs.

ADUs in Montgomery County, Maryland

As part of the DC Metro Area, parts of Maryland experience escalating housing prices. In some parts of the county, as of 2015, more than 64,000 households spent over 30% of their monthly annualized income on housing. Even in more affluent areas, such as Chevy Chase and Bethesda, over 25% of households were considered “housing burdened.”

Although ADUs are not new in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 2019, the County Counsel approved an amendment to the county’s Zoning Ordinance, making it easier for homeowners to add ADUs. ADUs previously approved as conditional uses are “grandfathered,” notwithstanding any changes in ADU requirements in the new law.

Under the Montgomery County law, all ADUs must meet certain requirements, including:

  • There can be only one ADU per lot.

  • The owner of the property must live in either the principal dwelling unit or the ADU.

  • New ADUs must be licensed by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs

  • ADUs must have the same street address as the principal residential unit.

  • ADUs must have one additional parking spot in addition to those required for the principal residential unit.

  • ADU square footage may not exceed the lesser of 1200 square feet or 50% of the total floor area of the principal residential unit (there are additional limitations on building additions to create an ADU).

  • No more than two adults may reside in an ADU.

  • With limited exceptions, attached ADUs must have a separate entrance at the side or rear of the principal residential unit.

  • Separate ADUs are permitted only on properties of at least one acre.

Licenses and Approvals Required

Even where ADUs are permitted, homeowners frequently must obtain a license or permit before they can be rented or used as a separate living unit. In Montgomery County, for instance, the homeowner must submit a license application and pay fees totaling $581 and follow a specified process, which includes posting a sign on their property notifying the public of the pending application.

Also, properties subject to a homeowners’ association (HOA) should check their HOA rules relating to ADUs. Some HOAs may require board approval of an ADU and many may prohibit ADUs altogether. Although in some areas, there is movement to prohibit HOAs from excluding ADUs in planned developments, most state and local governments have not yet adopted such legislation.

ADUs Don’t Meet All Needs

Large violin cases that can hold all the violinist’s accessories don’t meet some musicians’ needs, but others don’t like to deal with a smaller case and multiple accessory bags. Plus, some smaller case manufacturers offer accessory bags tailored to the case, but not all do.

ADUs, likewise, can help members of the sandwich generation care for aging parents and house boomerang children. And ADUs may provide extra income that enables people on fixed incomes to remain in their homes despite rising costs.

Just as violin cases aren’t one-size-fits all, neither is housing. ADUs aren’t allowed everywhere, and they don’t meet all needs. ADUs can’t provide the safety of a memory care unit for a family member who has dementia, and occupancy limits may not make ADUs an option for an adult child with children. Homeowners, therefore, should work with a real estate professional to evaluate whether an ADU is right for their property.

This series draws from Elizabeth Whitman’s background in and passion for classical music to illustrate creative solutions for legal challenges experienced by businesses and real estate investors.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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