Two houses, one lot
February 7, 2013 3:42 PM   Subscribe

I've noticed something kind of unusual in many of the residential houses in San Francisco. Often times there's a primary residence facing the street (for example a three-story Victorian) and then a second, more modern building in the back yard (like a one- or two-story cottage). There's a second street number and usually a little gate to access the back building. It seems like a different family occupies the back unit than the front unit (and the front unit is sometimes further subdivided into what I assume are condos). A bunch of naive questions:

What are these buildings called?
When were these built and was it just empty backyard at some point?
Is the reason purely economic and do they sell the back unit (and land) or just rent it?
Do they share any maintenance costs, as a coop might?
What is the arrangement - does someone have access the remaining yard or do they share it?
In some cases it looks like there's only a normal door-sized gate for access. Isn't it a pain in the ass to bring anything large to the back unit (for example, when the house was built or during renovations)?
Does it feel sort of weird?
Any anecdote would be welcome.
posted by 2bucksplus to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
These sound like laneway houses. We have them in my city, too.
posted by Lescha at 3:46 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a neighborhood here in Chicago (I think down near where the stockyards were) where this was sort of planned like this. The owners were mostly laborers, who would build a small house first, and use the rest of the lot for a garden. Then as they got a little money saved they would add on, or just build a bigger house in front, and rent the back to a newly arrived worker.
posted by timsteil at 3:49 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

In-law units or "secondary suites."
posted by entropicamericana at 3:52 PM on February 7, 2013

In Chicago we call them coach houses.
posted by payoto at 3:53 PM on February 7, 2013

If two legal parcels have been created, the rear one is called a flag lot.
posted by carmicha at 3:57 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my city, you will find situations where a lot (usually a large one) has been divided and there's a house in back and one in front with a driveway leading to the back lot. It's called a "flag lot" due to the shape of the property line. In dense cities, it's a way to keep the city populated, and affordable.
posted by amanda at 3:58 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen anything exactly like this before, but I live in a similar setup in LA, so I thought I'd weigh in. Here we have what are I think called "back apartments", but I guess some people have "pool houses" or maybe other structures. I haven't lived in LA long enough to be 100% sure of the consensus for these kinds of apartments, though I know they're ubiquitous here.

Is the reason purely economic and do they sell the back unit (and land) or just rent it?

In my case, the back space is rented. I don't really know how it would be feasible to split the lots and sell separately, or whatever the alternative would be. I guess it could sort of convert to a condo situation, but that sounds complicated.

Do they share any maintenance costs, as a coop might?

In my case, it's just like renting any other apartment. I could see us pooling money together to do a big awesome project, but generally I assume that, as a renter, I'm not responsible out of pocket for basic maintenance of the property. Obviously there could be other arrangements.

What is the arrangement - does someone have access the remaining yard or do they share it?

In my situation, the remaining yard is mostly shared.

In some cases it looks like there's only a normal door-sized gate for access. Isn't it a pain in the ass to bring anything large to the back unit (for example, when the house was built or during renovations)?

I don't know about the construction/renovation aspect (and my place doesn't have exactly the kind of gate situation you describe), but yeah, living in the back apartment has this downside. Anything big and bulky I want to get into my house has to be schlepped to the back of the property. That said, I guess this isn't that different from anyone living in an apartment type situation. When I lived in a traditional apartment building, anything I wanted to bring home had to go up three flights of stairs.

Does it feel sort of weird?

No, it feels like any other apartment. It's less anonymous than previous apartments I've had, in that we have this shared yard space. But I think a lot of that is that I share a building with only a few people now as opposed to dozens or hundreds. Honestly, it feels very much like a common rental situation back in New York, which is people renting out the bottom floor of their brownstone (which is also often used as an "in-law unit"). It's just like any other rental, except you know your neighbors better.
posted by Sara C. at 4:18 PM on February 7, 2013

I lived in one of these in Minneapolis for several years (in that case, the back house - 400 square feet, basically open cottage - was built to live in while they built the main house on the lot, and then kept as a rental space.)

Mine didn't have much yard, but I was welcome to use it. We split snow-shovelling. Water was on a single bill (and part of my monthly rent), I paid my own electric and gas. But as a renter, I didn't pay any other kinds of costs.

The thing I really really loved about it, besides the fact it was a fun (if weird) space, was that all four walls were mine. It was very quiet - I never had to worry about disturbing someone, or them disturbing me. (as is common in Minneapolis, the tiny little house backed onto the alley: I would occasionally hear the garbage trucks, but that's it.)
posted by modernhypatia at 4:27 PM on February 7, 2013

In San Francisco, these are usually called "carriage houses", and are renovated, um, carriage houses. Or they might be new construction on the site of a demolished carriage house, in which case they are often called "garden apartments" or "garden cottages". Most of them are indeed rentals offered by the owners of the main house.
posted by trip and a half at 4:46 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in southern California on a property (.75 acre) with what we always called a "mother-in-law cottage"; the main house was built around 1905 and the back house sometime in the 1920s, I think at the same time as the garage, since they were similar in design and both at the end of a long driveway. Plus the garage was split into two parts. Our whole property had at one time been avocado orchard.

Mom owned the whole property and rented out the cottage. She/we did all the maintenance of the yard, as well as normal landlord-type maintenance of the house. I remember being upset a few times when my sisters and I had to go rake leaves and the kids living in the back house came out and made fun of us. :(

Over the years there were a variety of arrangements of how the yard got used; IIRC there were a few somewhat natural delineations of the yard, so that they had a spot for a patio table or whatnot. I gather that one of the tenants after I left had a vegetable garden; early on there were some tenants with chickens who lived in different fenced-in areas. It was all individually negotiated.

As a kid (7-17yrs) in the front house sometimes it was cool, sometimes it was annoying. Depended a LOT on the tenants. (Those kids who made fun of us...I hated those kids.) I know that for Mom it was an absolutely vital source of income right after Dad died, and sometimes it was a nice neighborly thing, and sometimes it was incredibly stressful.
posted by epersonae at 4:54 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi! I live in one of those. I'm on the SF bay peninsula, but it's basically the same. On the front of the property is a 3/1. There's a fence that separates our semi-studio 1/1 from the front of the property, so we have a little bit of a "front" yard that's behind our neighbors' "back" yard. We're lucky in that we can access our houselette via the alleyway that runs behind the properties here. We usually refer to it as an "in-law suite" and people seem to understand. Our street address is even "243 1/2"! The front property is definitely the nicer one. The yard is larger, etc, but ours is cheaper.

My understanding from our landlord is that this house was build a couple of decades (1960s) after the front house was built (1940s). I'm not sure why it was built, but they're a boon to landlords, since you can extract two rents from a single plot, or have a renter offsetting the cost of your mortgage. Property prices are commensurately higher - what would be a 1100 sq. ft. $800k starter home might cost $1.25M if it has a smaller, rentable building on the property.

We don't share any costs with the front house - I was told that when the building was permitted in the 1980s to be rented separately, the city required that utilities be split. We have our own cable, phone, gas, electric, water, and trash service. Our landlord did provide a lawn mower, which I borrow from the neighbor, but that's about the only think I can think of that's shared. I have friends who rent out a floor of their house in Berkeley, and they wrap utilities into the rent, and share the yard with their tenants.

As to whether it's weird. Uhm, it's inconvenient at times. Getting delivery pizza is basically a nonstarter of an idea, because I can't really explain how to get to my front "door". The thing is, it's so much cheaper (we pay at least $400/mo under prevailing rates for a 1/1) and nicer than an apartment that we don't mind it. Mostly, living in a high-cost area like the SFBA (or SF proper) simply requires you to recalibrate what is "normal". Life here is so good that you adjust your base expectations to match what's required and what's acceptable to others.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 5:14 PM on February 7, 2013

I live in one of these cottages in SF. These are mostly not typical in-law units as described by other posters in this thread. Here's why:

As outlined here (and elsewhere, search for "earthquake cottages") after the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed, thousands of residents were homeless and living in tent cities in the city parks. This became untenable as the winter rains approached, and the government built about 5000 shacks to serve as more stable housing for people in these earthquake camps.

They had a "rent-to-own" model, and after a certain point, the residents of the cottages now owned these shacks and had to get their private property off of public lands. People started buying land around the parks, and hauled the cottages by horse or mule team to their new property.

In my case, in 1910 or so, the owners built a foundation and a single story at the back of their property a few blocks from the park, and then hauled the cottage and set it on top of that first story to make a two-story house. They added minimal plumbing (only on the top floor, because it is level with the street) but did not add any closets (sigh). They lived in this cottage for a few years while building a lovely three story Edwardian at the front of the property.

To your questions:

+ In my case, the property is a tenancy-in-common (TIC) as many multi-family properties in SF are. Some of the units are owner-occupied and some are rentals.

+ We share the yard.

+ It is a pain in the ass to bring large things back to the cottage. The couch I had in my last house did not make it through the narrow opening. But it is delightful to have a private little house away from the street, and that more than makes up for the idiosyncrasies.

Happy to answer more questions.
posted by judith at 5:34 PM on February 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

On my street in the downtown core of Gloucester, MA there are a half-dozen or so of these. When I researched my house and the street, it appeared that going back to 1896 the outbuildings were there, marked as carriage houses. Now, maybe one or two is rented as a residence, the rest appear to be storage/garage space, and some were torn down. It's odd to me that they had these carriage houses on such small lots (ours at under 6k square foot is the largest on the street), but old maps don't lie! The houses that still have these outbuildings have little to no yard. As my neighborhood has predominantly been working class Italians for decades upon decades, I believe in all the cases that they're just rented out to extended family.
posted by kpht at 5:36 PM on February 7, 2013

If there is an alley, they might be called "alley flats" or "alley infill housing." (Alleys are sometimes called "small streets" by urban advocates who want them to have housing all along it, that might be another useful google term.)

Around me they are usually converted carriage houses (or garages) in older neighborhoods with alleys (postwar neighborhoods don't have alleys around here), sometimes behind big old Victorians where the house has been converted to apartments and the carriage house converted along with it. Until the mid-60s, I think, garages were required to be detached from houses according to local zoning code (because of fire and exhaust risk), so sometimes you see these "backyard apartments" in newer neighborhoods where the garage is sort-of half tucked behind the house and the zoning already allows for a fully-electrified outbuilding with a foundation (i.e., detached garage) so it's not so big a deal to get a variance to turn it into an apartment.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:13 PM on February 7, 2013

See p. 70 in this report about the history of the Mission District. It describes the use of temporary structures on the alley side of lots during earthquake rebuilding. Pages 48-49 talk about the pre-earthquake use of the back portion of lots.
posted by slidell at 7:20 PM on February 7, 2013

Thanks judith that must be it! It's a more fascinating story than I imagined.

After much googling I was able to find a pretty good image of what I'm talking about. Even better, two side by side. If you look at the building in street view you'll see two small doorways over two small sets of stairs that don't match the neighboring buildings. They also have their own street addresses. There is no other access to these houses, no alleys or driveways at all. From the air you can see the architecture is completely different from the buildings in front, in fact it looks kind of like a much updated cottage.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:32 PM on February 7, 2013

Any municipality with a tight housing market will have some version of an accessory dwelling unit. Here in Honolulu, "ohana units" are an option for people hoping to double up, but is usually restricted to actual relatives. My neighborhood also has a fair number of lots with a single-wall timber plantation cottage in front (landlord) and a masonry duplex (rental units) in the back.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:40 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The CMHC calls these Garden Suites.
posted by Mitheral at 12:37 AM on February 8, 2013

In that Google Maps link, it shows a "Mini Park" immediately behind those buildings - I'm guessing there's some sort of access from the park side, even if it's just an emergency exit door.

When I lived in Vancouver I lucked into renting a 'carriage house' in Kitsilano. It was a pretty ramshackle building, incredibly tiny, but totally standalone. There was a porch facing the back yard of the house on 3rd St, but the door to the alley was our primary access point. It was a well-travelled alley with apartments overlooking it, so we had even more chance to interact with the neighbourhood than we would have facing the street. When we went out for dinner we'd pop out the back door of our favourite sushi bar then walk ten steps to our place.

There were downsides - skunks trying to dig a nest underneath the bedroom at 3 AM, car alarms going off in the parking lot next door, transients digging through the trash or passing out in the alley. Getting deliveries was tricky - furniture delivery people loved the alley, but food delivery drivers never seemed to get it. But I've never felt as much a part of the neighbourhood as I did living in that alley.

At the time it was a unique living situation but that was over 10 years ago; in the last decade Vancouver has been encouraging the building of laneway homes (as mentioned above, it's a way to fit more people into a tight rental market). A few years ago I walked my old alley and they were turning the little shack into this two story building with actual windows, probably renting for a couple thousand a month.
posted by Gortuk at 7:50 AM on February 8, 2013

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