Melissa Williams’ Palo Alto backyard was an empty space at the beginning of the day on Sept. 14. By midday, however, a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom home was sitting in her yard. Lowered by a crane, the home took only about 10 minutes to install onto the concrete foundation and was nearly turn-key ready for her college-aged son, who had unexpectedly moved back home in the spring when his school shut down due to COVID-19 health restrictions. With her younger son already living in their two-bedroom home, the elder son had to move into the dining room. Strained for space and time, Williams chose to install a prefabricated accessory dwelling unit built by Redwood City startup Abodu. While craning in additional square footage sounds extreme, Williams is among a growing number of Bay Area residents looking for a quick way to add extra living space to accommodate more family members during the pandemic. Williams’ accessory dwelling unit — also known as an ADU or granny unit — was the first one that Abodu installed in Palo Alto, but company co-founder John Geary said that he has received similar queries from other local residents on a daily basis.
Geary estimated that since the pandemic, about 90% of his requests in Palo Alto have been for additional space to house young adults returning home or to provide an alternative to assisted living for aging family members. Prior to the pandemic, Geary said he mainly received requests from retired couples looking to generate rental income or from seasoned rental property owners looking to expand their income by adding units to their properties. ADUs have the benefit of keeping families close together while maintaining some boundaries, he said. Demand for ADUs has been on the rise over the past few years since local and state restrictions have been relaxed. Accessory dwelling units are now Palo Alto’s biggest source of new housing, according to city-data. After years of seeing just a few new cottages pop up annually, the city has seen an exponential rise in recent years, with more than 100 applications processed since 2019.
Geary said new demands for more living space at a faster pace during the pandemic could push that number much higher. According to Williams, the prefab home installation process has felt “incredibly easy” compared with the nine-month headache she experienced renovating a shed on her previous property, also in Palo Alto. Williams said she placed her order in early July. The company took care of the permitting process, and two-and-a-half months later, workers delivered the unit to her University South neighborhood. The home was about 98% completed once it landed in her backyard. A three- to four-person construction team worked on the site for about 10 business days prior to installation and five business days after installation, according to the company. Most Abodus are installed via crane lifted over the main home, but space permitting, the homes can be moved into a backyard via rollers. Family needs aside, Williams said she sees her ADU as a sound investment. The unit cost about $225,000, all furnishings included. In a city where the median price per square foot was about $1,465 in September, a 500-square-foot home would have cost about $732,500. The backyard home is so appealing that her two sons are fighting over it, Williams laughed.