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Real Estate & Home

When does an accessory unit become a primary dwelling?

2/20/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Tom Kelly

Gimme Shelter

Eileen Casey moved from her home in a multifamily, business-zoned area in town to a single-family zoned area in the suburbs because the traffic and noise had become too much for her to handle.

After about three years at her new address, she started experiencing some of the same problems that led her to move. This time, they were right next door.

“The basement had been totally renovated with its own separate entrance,” Casey said. “There were now two separate units and one was being rented to three young men in the construction business. There were extra cars being parked on the street and the congestion and noise were becoming a problem.”

Casey spoke to other neighbors, who also felt the same way. When she went to the library and discovered any homeowner could apply for “accessory housing,” she was shocked.

“I thought it was crazy that there is no real single-family zoning,” Casey said. “As long as it’s owner-occupied, you can put in a mother-in-law apartment. The only reason it’s not classified a duplex is that the owner lives there.”

Proponents of mother-in-law units, or separate and independent accessory dwellings, say they are a great way for single homeowners — especially retired folks — to help pay high property taxes and monthly mortgages. The apartments also would be an attractive living situation option for seniors on a limited income and other low-income residents.

There are stipulations in most county codes for accessory housing, but the one most discussed is the number of people who can occupy the accessory unit. For example, one code reads: “The total number of people who may occupy principal residence and the accessory unit, together, shall not exceed the number of people who may occupy a single-family dwelling …”

The definition of “family” has recently been revised to mean “an individual, or two or more persons related by blood or marriage, or a group of not more than eight persons who are not related by blood or marriage, excluding servants, living together in a dwelling unit.”

Over the past several years, depending on where you live, the number of unrelated persons probably has been raised. For example, our adjacent county raised its ceiling from five persons to eight. But what about minors? Are they included in that eight, or can there be any number of offspring allowed because they are related by blood?

I bet if you polled most county officials, staff and the members of the building and land development division you would get a variety of answers and find confusion about the number of people who could occupy a single-family residence with an accessory unit.

Some jurisdictions classify a mother-in-law space “as its own dwelling unit” and can accommodate an entirely different family than the one living in the principal dwelling. In addition, only five unrelated people are allowed in each unit, including minors.

County officials acknowledge that enforcing the zoning code has been difficult and that it basically relies on complaints. However, even legitimate claims often prove to be futile attempts.

“When the county came out to investigate our complaints, they said the property did not violate zoning laws,” Casey said. “Of course, they came in the middle of the day, when there are fewer people and cars around.”

If you are planning to buy, or rent, in a single-family neighborhood, spend a lot of time talking to neighbors about the area and your new block, in particular. Take a lunch hour and watch traffic. Then take a dinner hour and do the same.

Finding out what’s up now could make your future a lot more pleasant. Consider something close to the original connotation of mother-in-law apartments. Maybe that’s how they got their name.


Tom Kelly, former real estate editor for The Seattle Times, is a syndicated columnist and talk-show host.

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