Feasibility Studies – Stories From the Field



February 9, 2016

More and more Marin County homeowners are becoming aware of the benefits of second units, and we’ve been doing a lot of free 45-minute phone consultations to familiarize people with the process for developing these small homes.  And the number of requests from homeowners for feasibility studies has grown considerably.  We love seeing the variety of homes that we have here in Marin and identifying the opportunities that exist for creating second units or junior second units (JSUs).

In Novato, where JSUs are legal, we have visited two single-story homes in the same development, both the same three-bedroom, two-bath model.  In both cases the homeowner plans to turn the master bedroom and bath into a JSU.  Replacing a window with double French doors leading in from a wonderful private side yard with a small deck will create a welcoming entry.  The existing closet will be moved, making room for a wet bar kitchen with a built-in wine rack and small appliances, including an induction cooktop, a convection/microwave and an under-counter refrigerator.  A large window will be added to allow the chef to look out on the open scenic view.  The homeowner has the option of fencing off part of the backyard to create additional private outdoor space for the JSU which would add to its appeal and income potential.

In San Rafael, where a JSU ordinance will go into effect in mid-February, we looked at a four-bedroom, three-bath home with two large master suites; both are good JSU candidates.  One suite offers a spa bathroom and already has an exterior door to a patio and hot tub.  The other suite has a smaller bathroom but a larger, although somewhat narrow, bedroom and has a niche that is perfect for a wet bar kitchen.  However a little extra work would be needed to integrate the kitchen with the rest of the room.  Some investigation is needed to understand the challenges, costs and benefits of each option.  It is always interesting to watch the conversation unfold and to see homeowners recognize new opportunities that are available to them and their families.  We do not believe anyone should build a unit that, if push came to shove, they would not want to live in themselves.

And in Mill Valley, where there are plans to pass a JSU ordinance by 2018, we evaluated a three-bedroom, two-bath home with multiple ways to create income-generating space.  An easy option would be to turn the children’s bedrooms and bath into a JSU, but that will have to wait until the kids have reestablished themselves after college.  Other choices for creating a rentable space include building a cottage in the backyard, or turning the second floor master suite into a second unit and adding on a bedroom and bath at the back of the house for the displaced homeowners.  Having the master bedroom on the ground floor has definite benefits if the owner wishes to stay in their home and age in place.   We even looked at an existing structure in the backyard that is sound, but it could not be developed into a second unit in its current location in the rear setback area.  Moving it over several feet might be possible, but only if a truck or crane could be brought in.  This can be cost-prohibitive.  As is often the case, stick building, as opposed to bringing in prefabricated models, can be more economical, and can offer advantages that make it preferable, such as matching the style of the existing home and customizing spaces to best fit the homeowner’s needs.

We are excited because now, in addition to helping pass code that makes creating a second unit simpler and more economical, we are also actively working with homeowners and developing these small homes in the community.  In the future we are looking to report on more of these units to popularize living large in small spaces.  We would love to talk with anyone who already has a second unit about photographing the space and even telling the homeowner’s story about how having a second unit has enriched their lives.  Please help us spread the word!