Housing for Your Elderly Parents, in Your Backyard

The tiny-house movement might hold an answer for families moving Mom and Dad in.

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Want to move your elderly father in with the family but lack an in-law suite? Consider a tiny house that can fit in a corner of the backyard. A mini-movement of Americans adopting an energy-saving lifestyle has spawned a small industry in mini-abodes that might be just the ticket. The cottages usually range from 190 to 850 square feet and might have just two rooms plus a bathroom, with kitchen and sleeping areas carved out by bookshelves, say. "Parents can be independent, but at the same time they can just ring a bell and their kid can come by," says Andy Lee, 59, owner of the Tiny House Co. in Buena Vista, Va., which builds and sells about four small homes locally a year—although he's now fielding queries daily from around the country.

Or sometimes it's the kid who makes the move. "I think it's easier for younger people to make that sacrifice," says Gregory Paul Johnson, 43, who put his two-room cottage 50 steps from his parents' large home in Iowa City, Iowa. Johnson, director of the Small House Society, a club for fans, ditched his 2,000-square-foot home in 2003 and spent $15,000 for his new pad. Plumbing and electricity can be shared through the main house's hookups or installed separately.

A caveat: Zoning laws may limit the number of housing units allowed on a lot, so check the rules first. Visit The Small House Society to learn more.