Backyard Cottages for Urban Renewal

A backyard cottage is a space on a property where an extra person or family could live separated from the main home. It could be aptly described as a mother-in-law suite with lots of air space as a buffer. The cottage could be a converted garage, carriage house or large utility area. However, free standing, newly constructed dwellings are also on the rise.

The backyard cottage is not a new idea. A century ago they were very commonplace as the urban centers became more congested. Homes near the city center had large lots and a good way to house the thousands of people who worked downtown was to add cottages on the back of the property. In the early part of the 20th century these lots became commercial zones and the sites of multi-story buildings.

Rules for a Backyard Cottage

There are many guidelines for backyard cottages but the main concern is that they be self-contained. This means that they are like a traditional, fully-equipped cottage featuring separate utilities, kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area. Since 1994, the city of Seattle has approved extra housing units that are either inside or attached to the main house. The rules on backyard cottages in the Seattle are require that they be detached from the main house and placed in either the backyard or above a free-standing garage. In fact Seattle is a leader in backyard cottage usage and has developed a set of rules for their building and operation.

1. Lot Size

In Seattle, in order to accommodate backyard cottages within a neighborhood the size of the lot must be at least 4,000 square feet. The minimum width and depth requirements are determined by the inspector with regard to a variety of physical limitations that are special to that lot. One of the main rules is that the total area of the principal house plus the backyard cottage must not go over the 35% lot coverage limit for single family zones that is now a standing bylaw.

2. Cottage Size

A backyard cottage has a size limit of 800 square feet which is approximately twenty-eight feet square. A standard, two-car garage is approximately 400 square feet in a twenty-foot square configuration and this is a standard for converting. Some designers of backyard cottages will take this width and run the length back further than twenty feet for a larger accommodation with a single car garage. There is a height restriction of 25 to 30 feet so as not to affect the vision of other homes in the neighborhood. Also, the peak of a backyard cottage roof cannot be more than 15 feet above the peak of the primary house. This rule is to prevent backyard cottages from blocking the view of other homes.

3. Power

Many of homes in the U.S. built before the 1970's have 100amp power supplies or less. Backyard cottages would have their own power supply but the area has to be wired to accept the higher load that two or three more backyard cottages might draw. A city electrical inspector would have to check out the power supply.

4. Water and Sewer

A well-running sewage system requires gravity for good flow. If the sewage cannot flow downhill a separate holding tank with a powered pump would be needed in order to make a backyard cottage habitable.

Designer Backyard Cottages

They are called cottage or little houses but that doesn't mean that they are bland or functional eye sores. Designers have jumped at the chance to bring in plans that show a creative flair in a small amount of space. This even includes small garages and carports as many areas will not allow extra car parking on the front street. In California, backyard homes have many shapes and uses such as retractable roofs and solar cells for lighting.

Green Themes

One of the best perks about backyard cottages is that the power and heating bills can be very low because the space is under 800 square feet. With the right amount of insulation and windows that feature Low E and argon-filled glass can bring the power usage down to below that of a single bedroom apartment.

Tips for a Backyard Cottage

1. Check the Local Bylaws: A quick trip to the municipal office can give a homeowner a wealth of knowledge on building a new backyard accommodation or renovating an existing garage. There will also be information on power, sewer and parking requirements. Not only that, government agencies in some areas may be offering grants or tax concessions for building a backyard cottage.

2. Financing: A representative from the banking community can not only offer financing but gives an estimate of what a property with a backyard cottage will be worth on the market. In many cases there is enough leverage on this total amount where the whole project can be financed by remortgaging the property.

3. Check the Rental Market: No one wants to spend around $100,000 or more if the rental market is soft. This means that they will have to rent to questionable people just to make the payments. However, if the aim is to house family then a rental plan is not a consideration.

4. Real Estate Value: Consulting a local real estate agent before building is also a good idea. He or she can give the latest statistics on the selling of a property with a backyard cottage. The reason this may be a consideration is that a homeowner who turns a garage into living quarters may see the value of the property go down.

For more information on building a backyard cottage consult our Contractor Directory or simply post your project online.

Posted by: kim
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