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How to Grow Your Home in New Ways

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other add-ons are booming


spinner image cary childre and her daughter eva outside carys a d u
A new ADU became home for Cary Childre (left) on her daughter Eva Mauldin’s property.
Nick Burchell

Housing options are flourishing for older Americans, with the rise of ADUs and other shared living spaces. Whether it’s a converted garage, a roommate situation or a standalone mini-casa, creative add-ons can make life sweeter at home. Here’s how six families adapted their surroundings to welcome new additions.

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spinner image marilyn and kevin griffins house and janice cooks detatched one bedroom cottage
Marilyn Griffin (left) moved into the home of her mother, Janice Cook, who then moved into a new cottage.
WILL CROOKS

A house swap for the ages

Durham, North Carolina

Homeowners: Marilyn Griffin, 53, and her husband, Kevin, 56

New arrival: Marilyn’s mom, Janice Cook, 74

Home growth: The Griffins moved into Mom’s house; Mom moved into a detached 650-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage they built on the back lawn.

Approximate cost: $205,000

Growing your home?

Consider these options.

Accessory dwelling unit (ADU): A separate living area on the same property, either attached or detached. (Many of the conversions in this story, and the tiny home, may be considered ADUs.)

Addition: The default choice for creating more living space when shy a basement or garage, whether it’s a room, a second floor or an entire wing.

Room smarts: Split up a large room or repurpose an underutilized one, such as by converting a dining room into a bedroom or in-law suite.

Tiny homes: Usually prefabricated, these small houses offer most of the normal amenities but are typically up to only 400 square feet.

Conversions

Garage: This usually entails converting the entire garage or constructing a second-story living area while retaining the parking space below.

Basement: Best for more modern homes with walk-out basements. Ranges from adding a bedroom to creating a separate apartment.

Attic: Unused attic space can be turned into an extra bedroom or family room. —Sheryl Jean

Why: After Janice Cook’s husband died in 2019, her 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom house felt too big. Marilyn Griffin, her only child, who lived nearby, knew her mother was too vital to think about retirement communities. “We wanted her to live well in a smaller space,” says Marilyn, who works in health care. Both she and Kevin, a director at a biotech company, were thinking ahead to their own retirement now that their adult kids had left — and they loved the idea of living mortgage-free.

How: After a series of “frank conversations,” Marilyn says, “and a few meetings with lawyers,” adds Janice, the title of Janice’s house was transferred to Marilyn and Kevin, and her assets were shifted to them as well. Janice would get to age in place without any bills in a beautiful home built alongside her former house — paid for by the Griffins’ real estate sale.

Whoa: “An arrangement like this takes serious trust and faith, so it’s not for every family,” says Janice.

Wow: With both parties free from paying a mortgage, the home swap lifts one of life’s biggest burdens for the family. Plus, Janice gets to enjoy her later years in a very cool new house. The clean, white contemporary space has a front porch with two ceiling fans and views of tall trees. Inside, her house has nine-foot ceilings with three skylights, a full bath, a laundry room and an open kitchen and living space where she can entertain.

“I love to cook — and cleanup in a smaller space is a snap,” she says. They even installed an outdoor shower between the houses. (“We all love it,” says Marilyn. “It is like being on vacation every time you shower out there — even in the rain.”) Call it their forever family home. Marilyn and Kevin predict they’ll move into the cottage one day, with some combination from the next generation living in the main house. “And who knows what will happen after that?” Marilyn says. “It’s a very long-range plan!”

spinner image left peggy leduff and granddaughter gaga right peggys tiny house on wheels
Peggy LeDuff lives in a tiny house on wheels and gets to spend more time with granddaughter Norah.
John Clark

A tiny house for ‘Gaga’

Portland, Oregon

Homeowners: Karen and Paul Fejta, both 34

New arrival: Karen’s mom, Peggy LeDuff, 64

Home growth: Adding a 311-square-foot tiny house on wheels for grandma — aka Gaga — to Karen and Paul’s backyard

Approximate cost $91,000

Why: When she wrapped up her teaching career a few years ago, Peggy LeDuff knew Southern California would be too expensive for retirement. Oregon looked cheaper, and the allure of living close to her adorable granddaughter — Norah, now 2, who calls her Gaga — proved irresistible.

How: “I offered to watch Norah and any future grandchildren three days a week if I could roll in a tiny house,” Peggy says. Karen Fejta’s reaction: “Free babysitting? Uh, yeah!” Peggy sold her 980-square-foot studio in Los Angeles. After meeting with several tiny-house builders, she opted to have hers custom designed. “I was very organized with all the details,” she says. “I wanted a built-in dresser, a small closet and loads of windows. There is a sleeping loft overhead and a full-sized pullout couch below for when I no longer want to climb. I like to cook, so my kitchen has plenty of storage. And we designed the living area around my grandparents’ old china cabinet.”

Whoa: Running a sewer line required complex trenching around tree roots to the unexpected tune of $15,000.

Wow: “Having Gaga nearby is pretty magical,” Karen says. “We all have dinner on Monday nights. She has her book club here. Norah adores her, and it’s such great support.” Says Peggy: “It’s almost like I should pay them because I get to be the grandmother I always wanted to be.”

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Robert Borgilt enjoys his quiet cabin and visits from family.
Richard Darbonne

Dad’s woodsy refuge

A rural mountain community outside Ashland, Oregon

Homeowners: Brint Borgilt, 60, and his wife, Juliet Grable, 51

AARP housing resources

The ABCs and More on ADUsEverything you need to know about accessory dwelling units: what they are, how to get started, how to push ADU-friendly legislation and much more. 

AARP Livability IndexA tool that scores communities across the country on the services and amenities that affect life most. 

AARP HomeFit Guide: This free booklet features 100-plus ideas for updating your home so it’s safer, more comfortable and suitable for decades to come. 

New Video Series: Going Tiny With AARPSee more of the Hollingsworth/Reinbold family in this AARP Studios YouTube series chronicling real-life stories of people 50-plus using tiny homes and other downsizing projects to live better lives. 

New arrival: Brint’s dad, Robert Borgilt, 86

Home growth: Turn an outbuilding into a 400-square-foot cabin

Approximate cost: Robert put in $70,000, then, says Brint, “we did all the work except roof, foundation, Sheetrock and exterior paint.”

Why: When Brint Borgilt and Juliet Grable, a writer, bought their property in 2015, Robert Borgilt, a retired Xerox repairman and Korean War–era vet, moved in to his motor home next to the 1,500-square-foot house. Four years in, he broke his hip. “He clearly needed a safer place as he got older, so we built the cabin,” Brint says.

How: The 1970s outbuilding had connections for electricity and plumbing, but everything else got scrapped. The new Craftsman-style dwelling was designed with “all the amenities of a larger home, just compressed,” says Brint, a residential home designer. That includes a full-size fridge and stacked washer-dryer, vaulted ceilings, tons of windows and plenty of lighting.

Whoa: “Dad is a hermit and values his privacy, so we had to find a way to give him a great deal of space and also get the construction done. But he really enjoyed the interaction with the people who helped us build it.” The work took two and a half years.

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Wow: “This project brought Dad and me closer,” Brint says. They spend time in the property’s woodshop and sometimes eat together. “We’ll usually see each other five out of seven days a week, and I think he appreciates the work and time we put into the cabin.” Deer, foxes and the occasional cougar can be seen from Robert’s windows, and he enjoys tending to his bird feeders. “The place is comfortable and it provides for all my needs,” he says. “And I get my choice of so many views.”

spinner image prasanta verma and mother chander verma and inset the in progress guest suite for changer
Simple changes created a new space for Chander Verma, center, with daughters Prasanta Verma (left) and Karen Jones.
Lexey Swall / Courtesy Prasanta Verma

Minimal changes, maximum family time

Milwaukee , Wisconsin

Homeowners: Prasanta Verma, 55, and her husband, Vivek Anumolu, 59

New arrival: Prasanta’s mom, Chander Verma, 81 (on extended visits from her home in Georgia)

Home growth: Reimagining a dining room, adjoining laundry area and powder room as Mom’s summerlong guest suite

Approximate Cost $20,000

Why: “In India, parents live with you until the last minute, and that’s what I want — no nursing homes,” says Chander Verma, a stroke survivor who struggles with mobility. So daughter Prasanta Verma decided this year to create accessible space on the ground floor of her own three-bedroom home so Chander could stay for months, not days.

How: A bed, dresser and chair replaced dining furniture, two doors were installed, and a walk-in shower was added to the nearby laundry room.

Whoa: The permitting process was very time-consuming, and they had to consider installing a stair lift and moving Chander upstairs. Fortunately, the downstairs approvals came through.

Wow: Two of Prasanta’s siblings are replicating the idea, creating long-stay spaces in their homes in Georgia and Maryland. Younger sister, Karen, 54, who lives near their mother in Atlanta, is converting a ground-floor bathtub into a walk-in shower so her mom can stay through the Atlanta winters if she needs to move out of her own house. In Maryland, younger brother, Dinesh, 50, has a guest bedroom and bathroom ready. “This idea of staying with my family, and seeing my grandkids as they come and go — it’s what keeps me going,” Chander says.

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spinner image marina lopez de carrils house and inset marina and her housemate adam playing cards
A walk-out apartment ensures privacy for Marina Lopez Del Carril and tenant Adam Saucedo.
Theo Stroomer

Housemates bridge the gap

Broomfield, Colorado

Homeowner: Marina Lopez Del Carril, 58

New arrival: Housemate Adam Saucedo, 30

Home growth: Finding a basement tenant so Marina, a retired bilingual educator, would be comfortable and financially secure in her 2,800-square-foot, four-bedroom home

Approximate cost: Nominal, as the unit was tenant-ready

Why: “My three adult children have homes of their own, and I didn’t want to live alone,” says Marina Lopez Del Carril. Downsizing didn’t appeal to her in the current seller’s market. “I would have had to find something small and overpriced or moved somewhere much less desirable.” Social connection mattered too. “I thought, What about sharing my space?

How: Online housemate-matching services like Silvernest, Furnished Finder and Travel Nurse Housing cater to boomers and make it easy to find people to share your home in the short term, which can also bring in extra income. Marina listed her finished basement apartment(with kitchenette, bath and separate entrance) on Silvernest for $1,300 a month and had three interested parties the next morning, so she started interviewing.

Whoa: Safety was the top concern. Most share sites have integrated background check and identity verification tools, but Marina’s friends also advised her to install a kick-proof security door between her kitchen and the basement (though she didn’t) and to be clear on her house rules, the highlights of which were “no smoking, no pets, no guns,” she says.

Wow: Marina expected to live with “a woman my age or older, I figured” — but she “really clicked” with Adam Saucedo, a young guy who was relocating to town to be a school administrator. What started as a month-to-month formal rental in July of last year has bloomed into unexpected friendship and fun. The housemates sometimes cook or watch TV together, and Marina often hangs out with Adam and his friends. “Standing at my kitchen counter over jigsaw puzzle pieces at 11 p.m. with five young men, I just have to chuckle,” she says.

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A one-bedroom ADU brought Cary Childre closer to family.
Nick Burchell

Keeping pace on aging in place

Atlanta, Georgia

Homeowners: Eva Mauldin, 34, and Chuck Mauldin, 38

New arrival: Eva’s mom, Cary Childre, 67

Home growth: Building a stand-alone, 450-square-foot ADU behind Eva and Chuck’s 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house

Approximate cost: $200,000

Why: Cary Childre, who’s divorced, had been thinking her 3,000-square-foot house in the Atlanta suburbs was way too big for her and her four tiny dogs. So in 2022, when her daughter became pregnant with her first child, “the conversation about building an ADU got real,” she says. The sale of Cary’s home helped fund the new building project. During her career as a nurse, Childre saw too many older patients who needed help but whose families were too far away to provide it. “If I made the transition early to age in place, I knew I wouldn’t fall into the trap of not having support when the time came,” she says.

How: Eva and Chuck Mauldin considered adding a permanent attachment to their home but then heard about a local architecture firm that specializes in freestanding accessory units. “Ripping out walls and tacking on a mother-in-law suite just got too complex and expensive,” Eva says. “It was simpler to build from scratch with experts who understand how compact spaces work.” The one-bedroom ADU has high ceilings, a bright modern kitchen, a bathroom with easy-pull handles and clear entryways, and a studio for Cary’s art projects. Eva and Chuck, who work in the hospitality industry, now pay Cary a salary to care for their daughter full-time. “Childcare is hugely undervalued in our society, and Mom deserves compensation for what she’s doing,” Eva says.

Whoa: Eva and Chuck live in a 98-year-old American bungalow in Atlanta’s Grant Park historic district. They jumped through extra hoops for permitting, and the site’s steep grade required costly support piers, columns and a retaining wall. “We went $70,000 over our initial budget forecast, which was a definite whoa,” says Eva.

Wow: It is win-win-win. Cary can age in place with no concerns about housing debt, Eva enjoys hanging out with her mom and Cary’s new grandaughter has her beloved grandma as her babysitter.

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