How to find the Right ADU Builder: What are your Options?

We hear a lot of questions from homeowners who are hesitant about starting their accessory dwelling unit project because they don’t know what to expect working with a contractor. Or worse, they had a negative experience in the past and are now worried about finding themselves in another bad situation. Or perhaps they just want to know if it’s really necessary to hire a general contractor vs. hire a handyman vs. do it themselves.

Maybe you’ve had these questions pop up about building your ADU:

  • How do I make sure I have a good experience building an ADU?
  • What are my options on who to work with to build a granny flat? What does it cost?
  • How do I find a good ADU contractor?
How do I make sure I have a good experience building a granny flat?

Brush up on what to expect for your ADU costs so you know what to look for in bids and can hold your providers accountable. Also work with a contractor that provides transparency with good project management. Be aware of all the major requirements from the city and/or hire a company that will be accounting for these factors (e.g. will you need to upsize water meter, will you need a building location survey, has the ADU been designed to swiftly pass permitting etc).

Also know of any significant break points in square footage where different fees would apply. In San Diego, if your ADU is under 500 sqft, it will not require civil engineering review (stormwater, catch basins etc). If your ADU is under 750 sqft, there will be no impact fees (except for school fees)…. you can fit 2BR/2BA in a 750sqft space, so many homeowners pick that size to maximize the bang for their buck. The bigger the ADU, the cheaper the cost per square foot will be (since costs like plans, permits, kitchen and baths will be spread across a larger footprint).

Factor in important design decisions early to minimize (expensive) changes later. The overall size and shape of the ADU, as well as the placement on the property, will have ramifications on the living experience in the main house. During the design phase, consider different ADU floor plans and site plan configurations to help flush out any concerns well before construction is underway.

What are my options on who to work with to build the ADU? Could I hire a handyman? Could I build it myself?

You will need to decide what experience you want and will need to weigh the overall value in terms of time, ease, and predictability. In the small residential construction world of ADUs, there are essentially three options for how to build your accessory dwelling unit:

  1. Hire a large construction “firm” to build your ADU. Often called design/build firms with a team of people and a back office, they package everything for you – plans, engineering, permitting, construction, and in-person material selection. It’s like hiring a party planner or wedding planner… pay, then just have fun because your role is to provide input and enjoy the process. You’ll pay, for example, $275/sqft for vertical build cost for a 750 sqft ADU. SnapADU is a smaller & more specialized firm, so our costs are lower even though we offer industry-leading visibility & service to our clients and handle the whole process.
  2. Hire “a guy” to build your ADU. Typically a “mom & pop” general contractor or handyman, this kind of an operation may have a few employees who work in the field, while family members do the office work. This person likely hooks you up with a designer, an architect, an engineer, and will self-perform some of the build, maybe hiring some subcontractors. Projects are generally not expertly managed and hiccups are to be expected, meaning timelines are longer and more of the work may be on your shoulders.  But, you’ll perhaps pay $225/sqft vertical build cost for a 750 sqft ADU. We are focused 100% on ADUs in North County San Diego, meaning our expertise can end up saving time & money since we know what pitfalls to avoid (build location & size, inspection watch-outs, project management etc).
  3. Do It Yourself. This scenario would be you acting as project manager, finding your own service providers all the way through, hiring your own subs and perhaps self-performing some of the build. You can pay closer to $175/sqft for vertical construction if you go DIY. Be sure to consider the opportunity cost of your time…especially if you will be renting out the unit, also factor in the time cost of not having the unit rented for months longer if it’s DIY.

You’ll of course have to weigh the pros and cons for your unique situation. We’re happy to chat about what your project budget & timeline would look like working with SnapADU. Contractors that specialize in ADUs will be very knowledgeable about how to efficiently design, permit & build your ADU so you get the most bang for your buck. If you pick a designer or architect for your job first, be sure to get a contractor involved during the design to ensure that your actual build cost will be on-budget.

How can I find a good ADU contractor?

Work with a builder that has a good reputation or find someone through referral. If you don’t have a connection, consider working with someone that has significant experience building ADUs in your area and ask to see examples of their past projects. Be sure to ask about payment schedules and find out how much – if any – money will be required upfront (you should be paying for work as it is completed).

You’ve likely heard it’s wise to secure 2-3 bids on a project. If one bid is much lower than the rest, double check that there are no key components missing from the bid (plan submission & permit processing? sitework and utilities? any required solar?). A good contractor should want to minimize surprises so that clients are happy with the experience and want to refer others.