Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity Modular In-Law Additions (ECHO)

ECHO modular in-law addition attached to the rear of a two-story
ECHO modular in-law addition attached to the rear of a two-story

More and more elderly parents are moving in with their children and their families. Sometimes they move into the existing home, and sometimes into a new, attached apartment.

Families are sometimes prevented by local zoning regulations from building in-law additions in single-family neighborhoods. There are several reasons why communities pass regulations that exclude such apartments. The two most common are to preserve property values and safeguard neighborhoods from transient residents. In the early 1980s, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) proposed a zoning solution that would respect these concerns yet allow families to build an apartment for their elderly parents. The proposal became know as the Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity program (ECHO).

A floor plan of an existing two-story with an attached modular in-law addition
A floor plan of a proposed modular in-law addition attached to the left side of a two-story. The windows on the left side of the living room and family room in the existing home will have to be removed, and a new opening will need to be added in the living room to receive the door to the addition’s kitchen. The two left-side windows on the second floor will also need to be moved if the roof pitch on the addition is steep.

The core idea of the ECHO program was to allow a family to build an apartment on their property as long as they agreed to remove it once their parents moved on. After the apartment was removed, the property would be restored to a single-family residence, bringing it into compliance with the community’s zoning restrictions. To make this possible, the apartment would either have to be discarded or relocated. Virtually all advocates of the program recognized that modular in-law additions would make it possible to relocate and reuse the apartment each time the occupants vacated it.

A modular in-law addition attached to the right side side of a T-ranch
A modular in-law addition attached to the right side of a T-ranch

In theory, the ECHO program worked on multiple levels. Many families who want to help care for their elderly parents are not looking to create a permanent apartment. They do not want to maintain it or pay the additional taxes, they are not interested in becoming landlords after their parents no longer live there, and they would like to reclaim that part of their yard that has been taken over by the apartment. On the other hand, they do not want to dispose of an apartment that is in usable shape. They would prefer to recoup some of their investment by perhaps passing the apartment on to another family who needed it.

Unfortunately, the ECHO program has yet to take hold. In many areas, the necessary zoning regulations were not passed. Fortunately, most communities that The Home Store builds in already have zoning regulations that allow for permanent modular in-law additions. And they also allow for these structures to be dismantled in the future, as long as you obtain a permit and comply with the regulations. The one caveat, however, is that you must build the addition as if you intend to keep it as a permanent apartment. This means it must comply with all building codes that apply to a new residential home.

Disassembling Modular In-Law Additions

An advantage to using a modular home for a temporary addition is that it can be disassembled into a few intact sections that can be easily relocated. This is seldom a viable option for a stick-framed addition. The disassembly of modular in-law additions requires that the GC carry out the same steps he executed to button-up an addition, but in reverse. This should take considerably less time and cost considerably less money than the assembly. The GC would likely need to do the following:

  • Disconnect the plumbing, electrical, and heating systems
  • Remove the siding on the gable ends
  • Separate the modules at the marriage wall, inside and outside
  • Lower the roof on each module
  • Lift the home off of the foundation with a crane and crew
  • Place the modules on rented transporters that have all of the necessary permits
  • Deliver the modules to their next home
  • Restore the property to its original condition, including removing the foundation

The disassembly will render some of the materials unusable for the next owner. Some of the shingles will need to be replaced, for example, as will some plumbing and heating components installed in the basement. If you are buying an addition from The Home Store that you intend to disassemble, we recommend that you consider buying extra materials so the next owner will have matching replacements when it comes time for them to reassemble the addition. For more information, see chapter 7, “The General Contractor’s Responsibilities,” in The Modular Home by Andrew Gianino.

For a related story, see The Joys and Pitfalls of Inter-generational Living: One Family’s Success Story.

For more information about building fully accessible modular in-law additions, see Universal Design.

For some examples of universal designed kitchens and bathrooms, see Kitchen and Baths.

For more information about modular in-law additions, see chapter 8, “Building a Modular Addition,” in The Modular Home by Andrew Gianino.

For more information about the merits of building a new accessible home versus remodeling an older home, see Why Building a New Accessible Home Is Often Better than Remodeling.

For a comprehensive overview of what you need to know to build a modular home, order The Modular Home (310 pages) by Andrew Gianino, President of the Home Store.

The Home Store – Your Best Source for Buying a Modular House or Custom Modular Home in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New England.