Snap ADU 101: Interview with Co-Founder Whitney HillFebruary 13th, 2021
In this interview, Whitney Hill discusses how we’re making it a snap to build an accessory dwelling unit in San Diego. Hear about the pros and cons of standard plans, what it costs to build an ADU, how technology is making it faster and more seamless to build, differences in panelized vs manufactured vs modular, and why Snap ADU stands out as a granny flat contractor based in Oceanside.
Krystin: Welcome to Home Hive! I am Krystin Krebs, with Krystin Krebs Interiors, I am your host today and I am interviewing Whitney from Snap ADU. Welcome, Whitney!
Whitney: Thanks, Krystin, great to be here.
Krystin: Thank you so much for coming on.
Whitney: My pleasure.
What is Snap ADU?
Krystin: So tell us a little bit about your business. I love the name Snap ADU.
Whitney: Well thank you! Right, ADU regulations caught our eye. So we decided to go all in on that. My partner Mike Moore is a general contractor who’d been building in North County for about seven years and had started building some ADUs, was intrigued by the concept, and simultaneously I was looking at the regulation and excited to enter that space as well. So we kind of brought together our skills and realized that we could be more powerful together. So we launched the Snap ADU brand to make building granny flats a snap.
We focus on North County because we wanted to really get to know a few cities and the regulation. And the name “Snap” came from wanting our clients to feel like it was easy to build ADUs, to enjoy the whole process and feel like they got a great value and good transparency. It also is a reference to how we build. So we are a stick-built contractor, but we also utilize building techniques that mean that we’re effectively “snapping” some parts of the build together on-site after we’ve built panels in a factory. So we like to think that we have the best of both worlds by offering that kind of a hybrid.
How long does the ADU construction process take?
Krystin: Awesome, very cool. So how long does it normally take for your construction process?
Whitney: Construction process itself is about three months, and that’s including all of the site work and utility connections, as well as the time delays for any inspections that need to happen along the way. So the construction is about three months. The part leading up to that can be three to five months, depending on how long the city takes to review plans and approve permits.
What is panelized vs. modular vs. stick-built construction?
Krystin: Awesome. And for the pre-made walls, pretty much, that shortens the time frame a little bit, right? For construction?
Whitney: Yeah, so we end up framing in a factory, which means that it’s a more controlled condition. And we’re able to also be doing that in parallel to the time that we’re building that foundation. So it does shave off several weeks from the process. We also like that it means that we can do a lot of planning work ahead for where we’re running the mechanicals. So we end up pre-drilling all those holes and running some of the lines before we bring it on-site.
However, it’s treated just like regular construction because the panels are open. They’re not enclosed in the factory, which means that we are still completely considered a stick-built product that is inspected and appraised in the same way, which means that you’re getting the most bang for your buck as far as that appraisal value for the ADU and they’re easier to finance.
Krystin: OK, so it’s not like modular?
Whitney: It’s not like modular. Modular is when entire components of the home are completed in the factory, usually including the finish work too. And the walls are already sheetrocked. Typically all the plumbing is ready to go and those are often inspected in the factory itself and they’re appraised and financed differently. They’re also inspected differently. So for the purposes of the city’s perspective, the way that we build is just like any other stick-built construction project.
Krystin: Wow, very cool. It’s stick built, but it’s a lot faster.
Whitney: Exactly! Faster, and we’re also able to just streamline the whole engineering process so that our clients are able to get to an answer more quickly on how much it’s going to cost for them to build. So by having that part of our process, we’re able to get better cost answers earlier, too.
What are the benefits of working with an experienced ADU contractor?
Krystin: Wow, very cool. Nice! Well, we’ve kind of gone over some of the biggest benefits of this, but can you think of any other benefits we should share with our viewers and why to consider this kind of construction?
Whitney: Sure. I think just more broadly, Snap ADU, you know, that’s one of our advantages. We’re always looking for cutting edge construction techniques and how we can help bring a better product to market for our clients. We’re also exclusively focused on ADUs, which means that we’re working together consistently on this and learning more about how to get through permitting and inspections effectively. For instance, we know that while you can have four foot setbacks on the property for your ADU, it’s smart to use five so that you’re not triggering a building survey, which is expensive.
We also know what to look for as watch-outs that can be expensive down the road when you’re actually out there in construction. So we’re looking at water lines and utilities. We’re making sure that if septic is an issue, we’re taking care of that early. We’re always trying to push that to the client as early in the process as we can. We like to say we try to “kill” the project early before we start spending your money so that you know if it’s going to have some big ticket item in there. Also, as the contractor, we really have 80 to 90 percent of the build cost for an ADU. So we want to make sure that what someone is ultimately designing with the architect – we do work with an in-house architect – or we can quote out your own plans. But we like to be involved early so that we can make sure you’re designing something that we can build on budget.
And then I would say lastly, our process from a client perspective is very seamless. We use a lot of technology, including an app that the client can see their whole project. They can make selection approvals, they can look at the schedule, they can pay their invoices online. So we love using tech to make it a more seamless process and to feel more like a different industry. I feel like a lot of times, general contracting kind of gets a bad name. It’s a little bit dicey. You’re not sure what you’re getting. You’re not sure how to compare bids. And we really like to eliminate that uncertainty.
And so we’re very transparent on price. All of our costs are on our website. We always make sure that the client is aware of exactly what’s happening before we would spend additional project dollars. And we feel like that really builds a lot of trust with our clients. And sometimes, you know, maybe we’re not the right answer. And if that’s the case, if we feel like we can’t serve the client well, we don’t hesitate to tell them that because we want them to have a good experience.
Krystin: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I love the transparency and the awesome ability to be able to include technology now into your business. I mean, you’re totally right. It is a very unique business in the sense that it is a little more old school, but I love that you’re introducing new technology to kind of advance that, to really make – especially, like Millennials who are now starting to buy homes that are more tech savvy – that they get the opportunity to be able to really interact with you really well, so that’s really cool.
Whitney: Thanks! And we’re finding with the pandemic, it’s been indispensable that we started doing a lot more remotely. So our clients are already kind of on zoom more often and they’re doing things digitally. So that’s actually been really helpful that we’ve been able to roll with that wave. Also everything that we were building internally to try to run our operation better, we wanted to make that visible to the client. So, since we have the ability to see all of our schedules, we want to make as much of that accessible as we can.
What are benefits of pre-designed interior design packages for ADUs?
Krystin: Now, you also have some pre-designed package options, right?
Whitney: We do, we do. So a lot of times clients will come to us not having a great vision already for what they want as far as the choices that historically a lot of folks in construction projects – you know, smaller ones on their home renovation – would just be left to kind of do their own thing. And we heard that a lot of our clients wanted to have something off the shelf that they could pick. So we have an ADU Look Book of standard designs and finishes that are already curated to work together to offer a nice baseline product that is included in all of our pricing. If someone wants upgrades or wants to go very bespoke with a specific look, we do partner with great designers so that if someone wants to go that way, they can also do that. But we find that at least having a starting place is often helpful for folks to pick a package that’s already, you know, black and white finishes with quartz countertops and this kind of a feel / esthetic to it… whether it’s modern or whether it’s cottage, something more traditional. So we do offer those on our website and you can see those as well.
Krystin: Yeah, I love that, especially because most of these are going to be turned into rental units. Some people move into them. Sometimes they’ll have family members move in. But a lot of times, at with my experience so far, most people are doing it for a rental unit. So to have a pre-made package that’s already kind of rent-ready in a sense… it’s attractive. I think that’s a great, great way to go about it, especially if you want to have to think too much on it. You know, if you’re busy doing work, you know, you’ve got other things going on, you don’t want to focus on picking out the finishes. It’s a great option to be able to have something that’s already pre-done, put together for you. You’ve already priced it out. I mean, you guys are sort of like a one-stop-shop, you just – literally done in a snap. I love the name because it’s so true to your business model, so I love that.
Whitney: And you’re right. A lot of these – I’m glad you brought up the rental – a lot of these folks will build, not knowing necessarily if it will always be for a family member or rental. So we do kind of finish things that could go either way. It’s either a very nice baseline, low maintenance finish if you are going to rent it. We do things like standard shower inserts as the default, because those are easier for cleaning and cheaper. But we use high quality materials. So it’s things like quartz countertops that are highly resistant, if you are going to rent out the property. Different appliance package options, some that are scratch resistant. So we are kind of trying to “renter-proof” the design to some degree so that folks do have, like you said, a rent-ready product.
How does Snap ADU use partnerships to create a better client experience?
Krystin: Well, we’ve kind of already touched on this, but can you tell us what makes your company stand out?
Whitney: Sure. I think I did mention that we’re client focused, and I would say that’s probably the biggest one. When we started designing this brand, my partner, Mike, and his crew at Moore Construction always had fantastic client reviews. And coming from where I have in operations and process management, I know how important it is to run a seamless operation that delivers the product on-time and on-budget. So I think that’s very much in both of our DNA and we’ve we’ve imbued that into Snap ADU. So that client focus means that we’re highly responsive. The same processes and standards that we use would be what you find in a much larger company. And we’ve built it that way so that we have a strong foundation and we can support that growth because we see this ADU wave as something that’s going to be coming for the next five or ten years as folks take advantage of this.
And also, I’d say we’re different because we have a fantastic network of partners. We’re constantly looking for folks that we can join forces with to offer a better product. We’ve offered fantastic design options as far as partnering with architects and feasibility companies that can get us to an answer for the client sooner. We also look for partners in the space of augmented reality who can help us put something in front of the client even if we can’t be there in person. We have fantastic references on financing lenders that do exclusively ADUs. Realtors who focus exclusively on ADUs. Designers who focus on ADUs. So we really do try to keep our ear to the ground in this market to see who’s doing interesting things that could help us offer a better product.
When should you get a general contractor involved in the ADU process?
Krystin: That’s wonderful. So what if someone already is working with an architect or a designer? Can you still work with them?
Whitney: Such a great question. And we get people at all points in the process. Some have started with the cities, some have started with the designers. Some start by looking for a contractor. And so if someone has already found an architect that they love and are working on plans, either in the beginning phases or are done, we’re happy to be involved at any point in that process. If you have plans off the shelf, we can usually quote those for a ballpark price within a day, but doing a full bid for you with a guaranteed price max… four or five days. So we turn those around pretty quickly because people are wanting to make a decision. If you’re early on with an architect and you’re going for a specific look, we also like to be looped in on that so that we can help chime in on any design decisions to let the client know if it’s going to be expensive. Things like knowing about the sheer strength of a wall might change someone’s decision on whether to make a five foot versus six foot opening for a window or a door. Those things can have huge build cost implications. Also, the location on a site can have huge ramifications for the grading and retaining cost. So we also take a look at that during early phases. Pretty much whenever you want to get us involved, it’s never too early. We’re always happy to kind of weigh in with the watch outs of what we see as being important factors.
How much does an ADU cost to build in San Diego?
Krystin: You mentioned pricing. Can you tell us a little bit about what somebody might expect to pay for something like this?
Whitney: Sure. So an ADU is just a small home, right? So the bigger you get, the cheaper it’s going to get per square foot, because even in a small five hundred square foot, one bed, one bath model, you’re still going to be building that kitchen, building that bathroom, getting permitted, paying for the plans. So for the smaller units, your all-in cost is going to be around $300 per square foot. And so the bigger units, as you get towards that 1200 square foot max that’s set by the state, you’re going to be closer to $250 per square foot. When we talk about pricing, we always make sure to break it out into the different components. So we talk separately about the planning and permit phase. We talk separately about the site work. We talk separately about the vertical build of the ADU itself. And then any additional work that might be required with solar, and solar is required on all ADUs that do not have solar on the primary residence. So we break down the cost estimate into those buckets so that you have a clear picture. So just the build itself is very controllable. We know exactly how much it’s going to cost to build a 750 square foot, two bed, one bath model and all that pricing is on our site. The variable becomes, you know – are you on a hillside? Do you need a septic system? Do you need a utility, like I mentioned? So those are the things that can really cause the price to fluctuate, but that vertical build price is pretty easy for us to put front of someone.
Is it cheaper to build an ADU on top of a house or expand the footprint?
Krystin: Nice. So I get this question a lot. People want to know whether they should build “out” or build “up.” Do you have a do you have any feedback on that?
Whitney: Such a good question! I would say from a design perspective, it’s always easier to build “out,” simply because you’re not dealing with reinforcing whatever structure might already be there. Having to do an existing conditions plan for the primary structure itself, and then possibly reinforcing, is typically more work. So we do usually see the price being, you know, maybe 20% cheaper to build “out.” The other factor there is that, if this is an ADU for a rental, typically having it “out” allows more separation from the primary residence. So that can often be another reason that folks will go out instead of up. That said, we are building a two story ADU with a basement right now that has an ocean view. And the reason we did that was the client wanted to maximize space on a smaller lot so that he could get two different bedrooms in there for rentals. So it’s definitely doable. It’s always just a question of money and time.
What are the San Diego pre-approved ADU plans?
Krystin: Yeah, that’s very, very true. So, I know the city has these pre-made plans. Have you had any chance to talk to people about these?
Whitney: Yes, those those get a lot of buzz. So San Diego County and also Encinitas have put out a set of plans, six or eight plans each, that have already been created by an architect and have been reviewed by the city. So those are what I would say are “80% products,” because for any situation, you’re going to have to customize the plan to the site. So at a minimum, you’re going to have to have the site plan for that property. If any of that plan changes from these pre-approved plans, you will also have to – you will be considered a non-standard plan. So if you need to move a window or a door simply because of how it lays out on the property, it’s going to end up being treated like a regular plan. Also, we’ve found that the queues with the pre-approved plans – as far as reviewing it for permitting – we’ve found those to be about as long as the regular queue. So we’re not seeing a lot of time savings there.
And I would say, also, a lot of those plans were not necessarily designed with a build cost in mind. So things like combining plumbing walls to reduce on that cost or designing the foundation at a level that’s adequate but not over-engineered. Building roofs with truss systems instead of framing them. So we use a lot of those techniques that were not necessarily done in those plans. What we do see clients often doing is coming to us with one that is close to what they want, and then we will modify that one. As far as cost on design, it’s a difference of maybe three to five thousand dollars to go with a custom or semi-custom plan versus using one off the shelf. Because again, there’s still that cost of tailoring the city plan to your site anyway. So we see most clients opting to do something at least a bit custom.
Krystin: Yeah, that’s also been my experience, too. It’s a great base point to start with, especially if you haven’t really thought about ADUs, if you’re not in this world or if you’re not used to building new construction or renovating existing construction. So it’s a nice idea, but the execution of it might not be perfect for everyone. So I like that you guys have the ability to be able to take a plan and adjust it. I mean, you’ve mentioned walls, foundation, you know if we’re going to go second story, utility increase… things like that that obviously are not touched on when you look at this pre-made plan. And you don’t necessarily know that pre-made plan is going to work within your space. So that’s why we would hire someone like you from Snap ADU to be able to come out, to be able to tell you what you can and can’t do within your own actual property lines.
What is the best size for an ADU?
Whitney: Exactly. And we’re also trying to play the regulations as best we can. So there are some important distinctions at square footage, as you know, where if you go above 750 square feet, you’re triggering a different set of impact fees than if you were to stay under that. So if someone is thinking about an 800 square foot plan – and there are several 800 square footers from the city – we often recommend you go to 750 because it’ll save you several thousand in permitting. There’s also the factor of, if you stay under 500 square feet, you don’t trigger civil engineering and that’s more savings. So we do have a set of twenty five plans at this point that are searchable on our site. And the Snap ADU plans you’ll see kind of hover around those breakpoints because we want to offer options to folks that get a rental on their property at a competitive price point.
Krystin: Yeah, it’s so great to be able to have a resource to go to and to have so many different options to be able to choose from, too. And you mentioned, I think a little bit earlier, going bigger is usually more cost effective than necessarily going smaller. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, too?
Whitney: Sure. So if you’re already mobilizing an entire construction project – and let’s say you’re going to build a 750 square foot unit with the kitchen and the bath. Every square foot that you add of just livable space – that is not going to be involving any bathroom or kitchen or tile or mechanicals – that additional space is about $200 per square foot just for the build cost and the foundation. So compare that with the core of that unit that’s more like $300 per square foot. So when you’re already designing and mobilizing, it’s much cheaper to add it on now versus later. So the idea is just that you’re adding space that’s cheaper to build because it’s simply drywall and floor and ceiling, versus any extensive mechanical work.
Krystin: Technically, every place needs a bathroom and a kitchen. You can always add more bathrooms, but if you’re just increasing the size of the bedrooms, then you’re really not looking at that much additional construction because you’re not looking at plumbing, maybe you do have some electrical, things like that. I mean, plumbing is where it tends to get pretty expensive. Generally, you just have two spots for plumbing in a home – the kitchen and a bathroom. So it totally makes sense. Adding simple square footage where it’s just drywall and flooring and roofline, then it’s probably not nearly as expensive as most people probably think it is to just add that.
Whitney: Totally. And we’re also prompting the homeowner – if they are building it for a family member – we’re always asking the question about resale. So if someone wants to build maybe a 1000 square foot one bedroom and they’re on the fence, you know, like, “oh, Mom doesn’t really need the second bedroom.” We’re often suggesting resale-wise, a two bedroom ADU is just going to rent for more than a one bedroom will, even if they’re the same square footage, because it means someone can put a roommate in there. So we’re there to kind of keep a high level perspective and try to get the most bang for your buck when you’re designing these. So that’s kind of the other thing that we have in mind, just having seen so many of these, we can help guide on what will maximize the spend.
Krystin: Yeah, makes sense. Awesome. Well, if people want to work with you, where can they go to find out more?
They can go to our website, snapADU.com. We also have a pretty active presence on Instagram and Facebook. You can also email us at info@snapADU.com. If you want to get started right away, there’s a contact form on our website where you can fill out your property address and we’ll get in touch within usually twenty four hours to chat through any feasibility questions. It’s always free for a consultation. We like to get a proposal in front of someone early so they have a very clear idea of what we’re talking on pricing for their particular project.
Krystin: Awesome, well, thank you so much for coming on, Whitney. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Whitney: Thank you, Krystin, you, too. Always a pleasure.
Krystin: And we’ll connect soon.
Whitney: Sounds good!
We’d love to discuss the details of your ADU project. Use the calendar below to schedule a free consultation – we’ll get into feasibility and numbers on the first call.