Accessory dwelling units keep low profile 

Minneapolis has issued nearly 140 permits for ADUs since the city started allowing them in 2015

The kitchenette in Eric Tollefson’s 400-square-foot accessory dwelling
The kitchenette in Eric Tollefson’s 400-square-foot accessory dwelling unit located near Lake Harriet. Submitted photos

Kirsten Jaglo vividly remembers the January 2018 game when the Minnesota Vikings dropped the conference championship to the Philadelphia Eagles in an embarrassing blowout loss.

That’s because on that same night, she experienced a much more consequential tragedy when an electrical short in her Linden Hills home sparked a fire in her garage, burning it down completely.

Jaglo came to terms with the accident over the next few weeks, mulling over how best to replace the garage. She and her husband thought about how their friends in San Francisco rent out an accessory dwelling unit, or small apartment, in their basement.

Jaglo figured they could do the same by building an ADU into their new garage. She reasoned that an ADU could also make things more convenient when friends and family visit them for extended stays. “It gets stressful having grandparents in the house for a long period,” Jaglo said. “There’s not a lot of hotels in the area.”

Minneapolis is new to ADUs. The City Council greenlit them citywide in 2014 as a means to alleviate the local housing shortage. Since then, Minneapolis has issued 137 permits for ADUs as of January, or about one ADU on every 500 single-family lots.

Eric Tollefson rents his ADU to guests on Airbnb. He expects the investment will pay off in a decade.

Bruce Brunner, a real estate investor and general contractor, said the reason even more haven’t been constructed is that those who build ADUs are required to also live on the property where they build them. He said he has seven properties in the city that he is prevented from building ADUs on.

Should the city drop this requirement — which it is considering doing as part of the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan — Brunner estimated that ADU production could increase dramatically.

“The more tightly you regulate things, the less will be built,” he said.

But Christopher Strom, a Minneapolis architect whose local firm has worked on designing roughly half a dozen ADUs, said the major factor keeping ADUs from wider adoption is their cost.

“Depending on what you do, it’s going to be a minimum of $200,000 and easily reaching $300,000 to build one,” said Strom, who is designing Jaglo’s unit. “That’s what people aren’t really prepared for. I think it will change as housing becomes more and more expensive.”

For now, ADUs act mostly as upgrades for homeowners.

Jaglo said she and her husband, Michael Graven, hope that as they grow older, they might be able to move into their ADU full time and rent out their house.

Like many homeowners who have built ADUs around the city, Jaglo and her husband have hit a few bumps along the way. Now one year into planning, they still haven’t broken ground, but they hope to have everything finished by the fall.

The first thing Jaglo recommends interested homeowners to do is dive into all the information they can find on the city’s existing regulations, which are always subject to tweaks from year to year.

“I’m a scientist and do literature searches for my job,” said Jaglo, who works by day as a consultant on climate change, agriculture and water quality for ICF International. “I started off doing a ton of Google searches and wanted to get a sense of the rules and regulations.”

Eric Tollefson's ADU
Eric Tollefson’s ADU

Her relentless internet searches led her to Eric Tollefson, another Linden Hills resident who built an ADU on top of the garage of his home, located within walking distance from the Lake Harriet bandshell.

Tollefson gave Jaglo a tour of his ADU and told her that he intended to live in it while he did the needed upgrades on his lakefront home, which was not move-in ready when he bought it a few years back.

ADUs in Minneapolis can work three ways:

  • As a part of an existing home, like in the basement or attic.
  • As an addition attached to the existing home.
  • As a detached carriage standing alone in the backyard or other part of the property.

Building a detached ADU is perhaps most taxing. That’s because under the city’s existing rules, all detached ADUs need sewer, water and gas lines connected to them. This is where the process gets most expensive.

Tollefson had to get additional permitting to build his ADU because of the small size of his lot — something that Jaglo said she should be able to avoid. All in all, he estimates that he spent about $175,000. If he were to rent out the ADU, Tollefson estimated it would take about 10 years for his investment to pay off.

Eric Tollefson's ADU
Eric Tollefson’s ADU

Jaglo cut $30,000 from the final costs by abandoning plans to build a deck.

Jaglo was able to get a mortgage from a bank to pay for her ADU. But she noted that most banks don’t yet understand the value that an ADU adds to a property because they’re so new to the area.

The key to making an ADU successful, both Jaglo and Tollefson said, is thinking through what you want to do with it.

“If you’re going to spend time in this place, how do you make it feel bigger?” Tollefson said.

Tollefson’s ADU is a lofted, 400-square-foot unit split into four quadrants. Partitioning the unit this way makes it feel much bigger than it actually is, Tollefson said — a “visual trick” that is essential because its size is technically smaller than the master suite he’s working on in the main home. Jaglo is making her ADU feel bigger by adding windows and skylights.

Strom helped Tollefson design his unit and navigate the permitting process with the city. Architects tend to know the building codes well and can help prevent homeowners from having to re-plan everything in the middle of the process.