Small is the new green

Increasing environmental awareness along with economic and demographic trends favor smaller house sizes. Many cities are doing their part by updating zoning codes to allow cottage housing and small backyard cottages (detached ADU's) on residentially zoned lots. Seattle and Portland are two cities which allow backyard cottages up to 800 sq. ft. in size. These small houses provide opportunities for families, while increasing housing stock, density and affordability. Continue reading for more information about small house design and Seattle's backyard cottage ordinance or contact us to find out if your lot is eligible for a backyard cottage.

Saturday, August 22

4,000 backyard cottages for seattle

City Council Member Mike Obrien calls for the addition of 4,000 backyard cottages

Mayor Murray's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee (HALA) report and the subsequent action plan have deservedly drawn harsh critiques. The one item that everyone seems to agree on is that the cost of living in Seattle is high (See previous post on this impacts backyard cottages). One of the least controversial solutions to providing more affordable housing options seems to be adding backyard cottages. To this end, council member, and head of Planning Land Use and Sustainability Committee,  Mike O'Brien, wants to add 4,000 backyard cottages to Seattle. This means more cottages like Jennifer's cottage on capitol hill.  

Jennifer's cottage like many, will provide a home for a family member in the long term and in the short term will be used as a rental property.  It and other backyard cottages, can provide what many housing advocates are seeking, an increase number of housing units within the city.  As of a year ago, there have been around 100 backyard cottage built in Seattle since the program was expanded at the end of 2009. Even though interest in backyard cottages is increasing, it seems unlikely that anywhere near the number of cottages envisioned by Mike O'Brien  will be built. Why? Based on ongoing study being prepared by the City of Seattle, when those who had built cottages were asked to list the "significant barriers to building a backyard cottage" the number one reason was given was development regulations (71%) followed by the basic cost of construction (64%).  

The Seattle City Council is currently considering ways to ease regulations to increase the number of backyard cottages.  Of these, the one proposal that would be most likely to have an impact, and one that we are opposed to, would be to eliminate the owner occupancy requirement for accessory dwelling units.  Currently, to add an accessory dwelling unit you must live in either the primary residence or the accessory unit for a minimum of six months out of the year.  This requirement is almost universal among municipalities that allow accessory dwelling units.  Why?  It is widely believed that having the owner living in the unit will minimize the impact of having what could otherwise be considered multi-family housing within single family zones. More importantly, it also restricts the types of investors that can buy and hold these properties.  Currently purchasing a single family residences as rental property is cost prohibitive which favors owner occupants.  However, if developers are allowed to build two units on a single family zoned lot it becomes a much more attractive investment package for a absentee landlord. This would further escalate the prices for single family zoned land and houses.  

Owner occupants act differently than developers in a number of important ways.  To a home owner building a back yard cottage is a major long term investment.  The majority of homeowners finance their cottages with cash or by taking equity out of their primary residence.  This makes them cautious by necessity.  Also, the primary impact of their development is going to be on their lot and in their neighborhood. When we begin a project a typical client wish list contains the desire to minimize the impact to their neighbors.  We have and continue to work with residential developers. Not once has one of them expressed the least concern over how the neighbors might be impacted by their development. 

Tuesday, August 18

portage bay backyard cottage in the news

Smaller pieces of HALA puzzle, with or without upzone, in motion across Capitol Hill

capitol hill blog

Friday, August 14

historic egan house open sunday

Historic Seattle is offering this unique opportunity to tour the Egan House, one of Seattle's most iconic modern houses. The open house takes place this Sunday August 16th from 1-4 pm.  Registration and event info at historic seattle event
Construction of the Egan House was completed in 1959, with the house nestled between Seattle’s Eastlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. At the time, it cost $10,762. Designed by architect Robert Reichert for Admiral Willard Egan, it is one of Reichert’s most notable residential designs. Its fame is based on two factors—the advanced design and the house’s relationship to the surrounding property. For these same reasons, the wooden triangular form on a rectilinear plane sitting atop a pier block is an easily recognizable landmark within the city. Though threatened with demolition in 1989, it survived four subsequent ownerships. When the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department purchased a large swath of land below St. Mark’s Cathedral in 1998, it included the Egan House. Historic Seattle arranged to acquire it, along with the rights to use the immediate surrounding land, from the Parks and Recreation Department - See more at:

Sunday, August 9

backyard cottage for rent

A tight housing market is leading to an increase in backyard cottage construction

While the mayor and city council debate ways to lower housing costs homeowners building backyard cottages are benefiting from the tight housing market. Higher property values make financing easier to obtain. For the owners of rental properties, rising short term and long term rental rates offset increasing construction costs.  The real estate axiom, location, location, location, does apply to backyard cottages. Those in close in neighborhoods command the highest rent while construction costs are more or less consistent across the city.

A recently completed project by microhouse, this two bedroom backyard cottage features sweeping views of portage bay and is conveniently located near the university of washington and south lake union.  This backyard cottage will rent for $2,500 per month.

Wednesday, June 17

invite only open house wednesday june 24th

sign up for our invite list and see the backyard cottage we toured with the delegation from Salt Lake City.

more cottages please

A Salt Lake City delegation comes to Seattle seeking ways to increase the number of backyard cottages in their city. 

We met with a group of SLC planners at a recently completed cottage and talked about the ins and outs of the Seattle backyard cottage ordinance.  Also in attendance was a Seattle researcher who has been patiently interviewing those who have built backyard cottages and ADUs. The question on the planners minds was how can they increase the number of backyard cottages and what are the hurdles that prevent more people from doing so? While SLC has allowed backyard cottages for two years not one has been built, why?  

It would seem that the two primary factors affecting the decision to build a backyard cottage are financial and regulatory.  Seattle's hot real estate market makes backyard cottages attractive rental properties and increasing numbers are being built.  For example, the two bedroom cottage we were touring will rent between $2,000 and $2,500 per month, proving to be a good investment even with correspondingly high construction costs. The strong real estate market has also made financing easier with many people choosing to finance construction using a home equity line of credit.  In cities like Vancouver, B.C., the economics are tilted even more in favor of backyard cottages and roughly ten times as many have been built.  

Regulations intentionally create a barriers to construction, one that city planners have control over. The Seattle City Council is considering ways to ease regulations to increase the number of backyard cottages.  Of these, the one proposal that would be most likely to have an impact, and one that we are opposed to, would be to eliminate the owner occupancy requirement. For the record, SLC won't be eliminating their owner occupancy requirement any time soon. However,  from our experience, the restrictions imposed by regulations definitely shape what can be built, but they rarely make building a cottage infeasible.

We talk with hundreds of people each year who are considering building a backyard cottage.  In the past, the most common reason given has been providing a home for a family member.  While this is still one of the main reasons people chose to build a backyard cottage, more often now people are planning to use the cottage as a long term or short term rental. 

How about you? Are you thinking about building a backyard cottage, why or why not? Planners from Salt Lake City want to know.  


Thursday, April 9

backyard cottage workshop - April 15th

Would you like to learn more about backyard cottages and meet others thinking about building a backyard cottage?  We periodically assemble experts in the design, construction and of financing backyard cottages.  These workshops offer a unique opportunity to have your questions answered in an informal setting. 

backyard cottages for fun and profit   April 15th,  from 7:00 to 9:00 pm, Blue Building Room TBD. Phinney Neighborhood Center 6532 Phinney Avenue North

Backyard cottages can be used for many things including housing a family member or as a short term rental.  Join Microhouse and Ncompass Cottage Company to learn more about backyard cottage design, construction, and use. Bring your ideas, after the presentation we will have plenty of time to answer questions about the specifics of your project. 

Microhouse and Ncompass Cottage Company
$20 PNA member, $25 Public