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Real Estate & Home

Revisiting true spirit of mother-in-law apartments

2/27/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Tom Kelly

Gimme Shelter

Several years ago, we bought a large house in an urban neighborhood that had a separate apartment on the third floor.

We felt that the comfortable third-floor space, with its terrific territorial view, was one of the big amenities of this big house. It could be reached from the interior of the house or from a convenient separate entry off the driveway.

The idea was to rent the apartment to help with the hefty monthly mortgage, or to swap the space for nanny services. The only problem was that there was no stove to cook in the space.

We closed the house deal, painted the interior on the first floor and moved in. As we made our first trip to the third floor to store several boxes of books, we discovered there was a stove cleverly placed under a counter.

When positioned properly, the counter disguised the stove as a wood cabinet with a Formica top. Even the building inspector hired to evaluate the structural condition of the house had failed to find it.

One afternoon a young woman named Abby pulled up and asked if we had already rented our third-floor apartment. Abby said she had rented the apartment before and knew all the dos and don’ts of coming and going to a third-floor apartment — especially when children were sleeping on the floor below.

“I really don’t know if we are going to rent it,” I said. “In fact, I just recently found that there is a stove up there.”

“Pretty good cover, eh?” Abby said. “I was supposed to put it on before the house was shown. You’re not supposed to have a stove up there because then it would be an illegal unit.”

Abby was correct. Our apartment, like most of the mother-in-law apartments at the time in the city, was illegal or, in realty terms, “nonconforming.”

The on-again, off-again move to recognize and endorse these spaces, sometimes called “accessory apartments,” has increased the number of legal units through grandfather clauses and special exceptions. Ordinances in a variety of jurisdictions have been proposed, stalled, rewritten and passed, giving homeowners the ability to convert attics, basements or empty bedrooms into separate apartments.

In a recent column, we pointed out that 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.

Opponents say the units have transformed single-family areas into duplex communities with additional traffic and parking problems. They also note that few, if any, planning and design specialists were involved in molding legislation.

I don’t think homes should be remodeled in such a way that they accommodate mother-in-law apartments but ruin the atmosphere of the neighborhood. In fact, over the long haul, such remodeling might not be cost-effective. It would take years for the rent to offset the cost of construction.

My mother-in-law would never come to live with us, for a variety of reasons. However, I was pleased “her” type of apartment was legalized so that parents, caregivers and seniors needing space (or income) can live close to family, patients and friends.

The concept was not meant to be stretched to include large families with trikes, bikes and two station wagons.


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

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