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How to Choose the Right ADU Builder

There are general contractors, design firms, prefab ADU companies, & modular builders. Hillary Scott explains what to look out for when deciding on a builder
Updated Jul 01, 2021
With new laws streamlining the approval and construction, Accessory Dwelling Units – or ADUs – seem to be one of the most popular and lucrative opportunities for homeowners today. These units, sometimes called granny flats, in-law suites, or backyard homes, offer homeowners the ability to provide affordable housing for relatives or rent out their ADU to generate passive income.
That’s not all they offer, though. ADUs can be made to fit whatever purpose suits your vision. Work from home has become a new way of life for many in the workforce. Imagine a commute that's simply a walk across the yard instead of a slog in rush hour traffic. Sign us up!
Or, perhaps you need a studio space or workshop to breathe life into your creative work. Maybe you’re looking for a guest house or a living area for an elderly loved one or grown children. Whatever the reason you want to build your new ADU, it is essential that you choose the right ADU contractor to help you on your journey.

What To Look For in an ADU Contractor

You’ll want to go over a few key points when shopping around for your ADU contractor:

How Are They Presenting Their Designs?

When considering contractors, you'll likely find that some offer prefabricated ADUs - or pre-constructed structures placed on your property. However, as pre-packaged units, prefab ADUs lack vital input from the homeowner and rarely present any architectural character or artistic design. Ready-made floor plans are also quite in vogue, and ADU contractors that present these instead of cookie-cutter manufactured structures are far more open to client input.
As the leader in custom ADUs, Cottage offers dozens of proven floor plans that serve as a starting point for designing your custom ADU. Our design process gives you freedom to tailor everything from the layout, to materials, to finishes.

What Is the Process Like?

ADU contractors should be approachable yet professional. A contractor should not only be able to get the job done right - but also be capable of effectively communicating along the way.
At Cottage, we can help you through every step of the ADU journey. When it comes to construction, we can support you and your General Contractor to see your project through to completion. This looks like: a handover of permitted plans with your contractor, support on anything that comes up during the construction process, and a final walkthrough at final completion. In short, we do the work and hassle of ensuring your ADU build stays on track.

What Is Their History With Past Projects?

When looking for an ADU contractor, it's important to see the quantity and quality of their work.
What’s their track record like? Are their previous clients happy? Building ADUs isn’t the same as a traditional home construction project; you’ll want to check they are experts in the ADU field in particular.
Good news: Cottage connects you with vetted ADU contractors who have deep ADU experience and a track record of high-quality completed projects. Of the hundreds of contractors who have applied to our Builder Network, only 5% have met our standards in expertise and quality.

How Cottage Streamlines ADU Construction

The ADU construction process is complicated, and you don’t have to take it from us. Hillary, an industry veteran with years of experience at CBRE, says: “With so many different parties involved in your ADU construction—architects, consultants, city permitting offices, and builders themselves—you want a team that knows how to navigate the whole system.”
You're in good hands with Cottage. At Cottage, we rigorously vet all potential contractors and ensure they not only deliver the highest quality work, but collaborate seamlessly with all the various stakeholders along the ADU journey.

Does Your Builder Understand Your ADU Design and Needs?

With the traditional ADU building process, the design and construction teams are typically separated—the architect designs the permit set and navigates the local permitting process, and then the builder comes in after permit approval to bid on your project. This is a risky bet.
Because there is little to no communication between the designer and builder, it’s difficult to get a clear cost estimate for your project until you have paid tens of thousands out of pocket. That can be a non-starter for most single-family homeowners.
When picking your ADU builder, make sure they understand your ADU design, what you’re planning to use it for, and your budget. Checking all these boxes can be tough to do going through traditional channels.

What Makes Cottage Different From Other Builders?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, prefab ADU companies and modular home providers build their units off-site and crane them in. While one provider manages the entire design and construction process, this approach comes with severe trade-offs as well.
With prefab ADUs or modular homes, you’re stuck with the set design. Part of what makes ADUs so appealing is the ability to build a completely new living space without buying a whole new home. Cottage has found that most homeowners want something customized - something that matches their existing home, is tailored to fit their use case, or matches a certain design aesthetic. This customization is not an option with prefab ADU companies.
Cottage provides the happy medium. Our ADU designers "value engineer" our ADU designs - in other words, you get a tailored architectural plan that optimizes for elegance and efficiency. With your design set, you get multiple competitive bids from our network of vetted contractors. Competing bids means you're getting the best value on your ADU build.

Is the ADU Construction Quality Exceptional?

Building high-quality construction is foundational for us at Cottage, and it should be one of the top priorities when you choose an ADU builder.
The real standout GCs are the ones that are highly communicative, experienced, localized, and dependable.
With projects ranging from second homes for family members, home offices, or a new art studio to rental income ADUs, Cottage has completed high-quality ADUs for the full range of ADU use cases.
Cottage provides each homeowner multiple competing bids from our network of vetted contractors. We rigorously review builders for quality, service, and value. Of hundreds of contractor applicants to our Builder Network, we've accepted only 5% that meet our standards in quality, communication, and value.
Having a solid foundation, wood framing, drywall, roofing, and custom finishes are essential things you need in ADU construction, and they’re a given for Cottage general contractor partners. Still, although this should be a requirement for your project, it’s not necessarily guaranteed with prefab home and ADU companies.

Is Project Capacity Guaranteed for Your ADU Project?

Because smaller general contractors tend to be driven by local demand, it can be difficult to find a good contractor willing to take on your project for a fair price. When you’re trying to choose the right ADU builder, you want to find one who has the time and resources for your project without spending an unreasonable amount.
Cottage looks for contractors to build long-term relationships with through a steady stream of projects in their location of expertise. Cottage is committed to learning what projects work best for each contractor. These relationships are critical in offering clients the best contractors committed to helping build new projects — that way, both you and your contractor are happy.
Larger contractor firms tend to shy away from ADU projects because of their smaller project size compared to full-sized homes and home remodels. In addition, there can be hidden costs associated with trying to work with a larger-scale contractor.
By providing contractor partners with ongoing projects and tools to succeed, the top quality contractors are willing to take on ADU projects that they may not be as willing to do as one-off projects.
Even prefab ADU companies have project capacity issues. Certain companies require a certain number of prefab accessory dwelling units in your neighborhood to be signed under contract before starting on your project, leaving you at the whims of local demand that is out of your control.
Alternatively, other prefab ADU companies may not be able to definitively confirm whether your project site qualifies for a static ADU to be craned in. Site conditions out of your control, such as electrical power lines, easements, minimum lot size, or your lot depth, can either prevent a prefab ADU from being dropped in or add in hidden costs that can show up last minute.

Are ADU Delivery Timeline and Expectations Clear?

Once you have settled on a general contractor or other ADU provider, timeline expectations are important to confirm upfront. Timeliness, good customer service, communication, and construction quality are non-negotiables.
The timeline for completing an ADU project should be transparent and clearly communicated by your builder, especially if the right team with ADU expertise is on it.
Your contractor should provide you with a clear sense of construction deadlines and expectations up-front. Even then, contractors who have little to no information about your specific ADU design may not be able to provide you with an accurate estimate, both for cost and timing. That's why at Cottage, we've hand-selected vetted builders who consistently perform well against timelines and budgets to ensure you have a smooth and efficient ADU build.

How to Choose the Right Contractor for Your ADU

Whether you're choosing between a stick-built ADU through the general contractor path, or considering the prefab ADU route, there can be hidden issues along the way. State laws and jurisdictions, zoning laws in your municipalities, and building permit applications are just some examples of ADU considerations you should be aware of for any new constructions or renovations to your existing structure.
An additional consideration when choosing the right ADU builder is to find out how others’ experiences have been. How good is the prefab company or general contractor at addressing your questions and concerns?
Cottage can help you through each stage of the ADU journey, but you don’t have to commit to everything up front. You can move as fast as you want and pay as you go. Get started by scheduling a free 30-minute consultation today!
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