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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 your own office–only the commute is a brisk walk across the yard instead of a grueling slog in rush hour traffic.
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?

Depending on where you go, you can find a multitude of floor plans and ready-made structures that can be picked up and placed on your property, like wood blocks.
Prefabricated ADUs are an option for potential buyers. However, they lack vital input from their clients 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 a leader in customizable floor plans, Cottage offers several pre-designed options that are fully customizable and present a starting point from which you can insert your own personal tastes and preferences. Alternatively, Cottage also allows you to start an ADU floor plan design entirely from scratch, giving you the tools to draw up the ADU of your dreams.

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 the process along the way.
Cottage ensures a hassle-free design and construction process, where consummate professionals handle each step—from a site survey assessing feasibility to creating a stunning design and then running the gauntlet of permitting and building the structure to its final inspection. Clients are spared from everyday stresses.

What Is Their History With Past Projects?

When looking for an ADU contractor, it is 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.
Cottage only works with vetted ADU contractors who have proven track records of consistent and professional capability in constructing these dwellings.

How Cottage Makes ADU Construction Happen

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.”
Still, you’re in good hands with Cottage. At Cottage, we carefully vet all potential contractors and ensure they are not only qualified to execute their projects but work seamlessly with all the different stakeholders.
With the updated ADU regulations being only a few years old, understanding the full ADU process is simultaneously important and not automatic within the construction industry, from building permits and specific restrictions to local laws and ordinances.

You Need a Specialized Contractor for an ADU

Make sure to confirm that your builder knows what does and does not apply to their ADU project before starting the project.
ADUs are becoming increasingly popular, but not every contractor is equipped to build these housing units. It is imperative that the contractor you choose is comfortable executing a project with a short timeline, on a tight schedule, and with little room for error.

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, you want to make sure they understand your ADU design, what you’re planning to use it for, and your price range. Checking all these boxes can be tough to do going through the traditional channels.

What Makes Cottage Different From Other Builders?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, prefab ADU companies and modular home providers bridge that connection issue in-house by building their units off-site and craning them in. However, that 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 current home. Often, with prefab ADU companies, this customization is not an option.
Cottage brings the contractor in early in the design process, requesting options to value engineer the design and get the best possible cost for the homeowner without sacrificing customization.
With its in-house design and operations teams working hand-in-hand with select ADU construction partners, the Cottage team provides the best of both worlds — custom granny flats designs tailored to the homeowner’s specific needs and upfront cost estimates from its general contractor network before committing a dollar to the project.

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 designed and built high-quality ADUs for the full range of ADU use cases.
Cottage matches the right general contractor partner to your ADU project. This is a game-changer for many homeowners and would-be renovators. Just like your existing residence, custom, stick-built ADUs are constructed to last decades. As a result, every detail matters.
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. Clearly, when you’re trying to choose the right ADU builder, you want to find someone who’s gonna have 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 a process to help streamline the building process at Cottage, quality contractors are willing to take on these relatively smaller 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. Of course, situations such as the recent pandemic have put some things out of control, but issues such as timeliness, customer service, communication, and construction quality are important.
The timeline for completing an ADU project should be swift, especially if the right team with ADU expertise is on it.
The Cottage Design and Operations teams are constantly fine-tuning their process to ensure a beautiful, buildable design that will quickly pass through approvals and get into the contractors' hands as soon as possible.
By keeping contractors in the loop throughout the process, the entire team stays on the same page, limiting any surprises in the field and keeping your project on schedule.
The contractor or firm should be able to provide you with a clear sense of construction deadlines and expectations upfront. 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.

Choosing the Right ADU Builder for your Cottage

Whether you are choosing between a stick-built ADU through the general contractor route or considering the prefab ADU route, there can be hidden issues along the way across California from San Diego to San Jose.
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, and how good is the prefab company or general contractor at addressing your questions and concerns?
With Cottage’s A-to-Z process, from eligibility to design to permits to construction, minimizes the question marks you have before committing to your ADU project.
There are so many types of ADUs, from in-law apartments to backyard homes, for-rent units to basement conversions, garage conversions and everything in-between. The best ADU contractor guarantees that your backyard cottage or attic apartment will include a full-service design that's perfect for your lifestyle and your neighborhood's building codes.
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