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 finish material selections. 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, $400/sqft for vertical build cost for a 750 sqft ADU. SnapADU is a smaller & more specialized firm, so our costs are typically a bit lower even though we offer industry-leading visibility & service to our clients and handle the whole process. We are focused 100% on ADUs in San Diego County, 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).
  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 $325/sqft vertical build cost for a 750 sqft ADU. You may also lack visibility on the fully-loaded cost of the project, as budgets may not contemplate all of the requirements specifically for new ADUs, such as solar, soils reports, fire rated construction & upgraded utilities in some cases.
  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 $250/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.

What should I look for in an ADU contractor?

Finding a good contractor is half the battle when beginning your ADU project, as it seems there are endless options to choose from. When you decide to begin your search, be sure to keep these ten things in mind:

  1. The contractor regularly serves your area.

Every city has unique regulations that will affect your build, and your contractor should be able to provide insight as to what those are. Many companies will have informational resources available on the internet to help homeowners gain a better understanding of what a build might look like. However, when it comes to beginning a project, your contractor should be highly familiar with the intricacies of your jurisdiction.

  1. Their website is full of completed projects you can view.

Although everyone has to start somewhere, it is always a good idea to make sure the contractor you are interested in has experience in their area of expertise. A gallery of past ADU projects will give you an understanding of the aesthetics and quality of the company’s work, while also proving they know what they are doing… all the way through execution and build-out.

  1. They are the type of contractor that best serves your needs.

There are a number of different types of contractors that specialize in all sorts of things. Some firms are particularly adept in new construction, while others may specialize more in conversions or additions. Sometimes, a firm is large enough to take on all sorts of projects, which comes with its own list of pros and cons. A brief call or email to the builder you are interested should answer this question if their website does not.

  1. Pricing is clear from the start, with no surprises.

No one wants to be surprised by sneaky fees and added costs. Homeowners should be wary of a contractor that does not offer clear pricing on their website or in the initial consultation, as this could be evidence pricing is flexible and may change at a moment’s notice (either as a tactic or because they simply don’t know). Instead, opt for a builder that is honest with you about the full pricing up front. Some companies may hide certain costs from you in hopes of making a sale, but these sneaky costs will eventually catch up with you once the work has been completed and it is too late find a more transparent builder.

  1. Local organizations and individuals recognize them as an excellent builder.

Good reviews go a long way, especially when it comes to home building. A well-endorsed contractor will be recognized within your city (and maybe even state), as an expert in their field. You want to be sure when investing in a new home or ADU that you are working with the best of the best- it will ensure your safety, budget, and timeline are all considered throughout the process.

  1. Their timeline is laid out and easy to understand.

Like pricing, a build that is supposed to take nine months should only take nine months. Of course, small setbacks will occur and circumstances can change. However, a good contractor will keep you up-to-date on the project timeline, no matter what arises.

  1. Communication flows smoothly.

An unresponsive company on day one will likely remain unresponsive on day 200. If you are having trouble getting ahold of your contractor before you have even signed a contractor with them, it may be a sign that you should seek help elsewhere. Not only is this a matter of convenience, but it shows the care and attention they put into their work.

  1. They have proper licenses & insurance.

This is a given. In cases where thousands of dollars are going to be spent on a new guest house, your builder must have the correct certifications and training to carry out your job safely. Many companies will display their general contracting license number on their website or business profile, where they can be checked to ensure validity. They should also carry general liability insurance and workers compensation.

  1. They have sufficient resources to take on your project.

If you are seeking to start a large project, you will want to be sure the firm you choose will be able to take it on effectively. Your neighbor that does contract work on the side may not have the same resources as a large general contracting firm. Lacking those resources may result in drawn out timelines or extra expenses. This is not always the case, but it may make a difference down the line.

How can I find a good ADU contractor in San Diego?

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. Home Builder Digest has put together a list of The 11 Best Accessory Dwelling Unit Builders in San Diego, California.

Can I build my own ADU in California?

As mentioned above, you absolutely can build your own ADU. Should you choose to build your ADU on your own, you have the option of working completely alone, or purchasing from a company that offers DIY ADU packages for those especially construction-savvy homeowners. However, opting to build your own unit will require incredible organization as you juggle various subcontractors and vendors that will provide you with the necessary materials to complete the job.

It is worth noting that building an ADU on your own can be challenging, as there is a greater risk of making a costly mistake. Many general contractors have processes in place that have been refined and perfected over various projects throughout the years. Without this insider knowledge, you may hit more roadblocks than if you opted for an alternative build process, which has the potential to cost you more money and to prolong your project’s timeline.