What’s a Chicago Coach House and can you build one?

Share this article
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
August 4, 2020

Coach houses and other types of ADUs seem to be all the buzz these days in Chicago, as the city is leading plans to make them more accessible for homeowners to build. Why are these cozy little homes such a hot topic and what does it mean for owners and renters?

What is an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in Chicago?
What’s a Chicago coach house?
Who can build new coach houses?
Types of ADUs you can build in Chicago?
How big can a new coach house be?
How many ADUs can you have on your property?
Expanding an old coach house
How expensive is it to build a coach house?
How to finance your dream coach house
Can you rent out an existing ADU in Chicago?
Should you buy a property with an ADU?
Finding Chicago properties with a coach house

Chicago buyers guide to ADU and coach houses
Coach House in the South Loop

What is an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in Chicago?

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is an additional unit with a kitchen and bathroom that is added to an existing or new primary residential property. Many single-family homes or smaller multi-unit properties like 2-6 flat apartment buildings in Chicago have ADUs added to them. They could be units physically attached to the primary property, or can be detached but on the same lot. They can come in many forms like a basement or attic, the second floor of a garage, or a standalone cottage in the backyard of the primary residence. ADUs can be great for both property owners and renters because they can bring an additional source of income to the owner and they often are relatively affordable housing options for renters.

What’s a Chicago Coach House?

One form of ADU that was once very common in homes constructed during the early 20th in Chicago is the coach house. Coach houses are detached ADUs—it’s a separate unit from the primary residence, but on the same lot. You may sometimes also hear these referred to as rear houses or carriage houses. 

A coach house is a unit above a garage or storage space, or standalone frame cottage located usually behind the main property. These structures were once used to hold horses and carriages in the 19th century, and a horsekeeper would live in the space above. As cars became more popular the coach house became a garage, but the living space above remained a common feature.

Around this time, many working-class Chicagoans started building smaller cottages on lots with the hopes of eventually building a larger primary residence when they could afford to. This is why you can also find coach houses in structures that are solely used as living spaces, not just located above garages. In the 1950’s Chicago banned the construction of new coach houses, but the existing ones were grandfathered into the city’s new rules. You’ll find these old coach houses all over Chicago if you look closely and thousands of residents still live in one.

Other common ADUs in Chicago

Aside from coach houses, you’ll hear people call ADUs by a variety of different names. In Chicago the most common alternative names are granny flats or in-law units. Regardless of what they’re called, the key difference between other Chicago ADUs and coach houses is where they’re situated. Coach houses are located in a separate structure in the back lot, and not attached to the primary residence. The main examples of these are basements or attics found in either single-family homes or multi-unit apartments.

However, you can find properties with attached units that don’t always come in the form of an attic or basement. There might be 1 or 2-story units attached to the side of a primary residence as well. Outside of Chicago you’ll find other names applied to ADUs such as laneway houses, alley flats, or casitas. The names used for ADUs may differ from region to region, but the main functions are the same. The defining difference is whether the unit is attached or detached to the primary residence.

Converting attic or basement into unit
In-law attic ADU in Norwood Park

Who can build new coach houses?

An ordinance presented by Chicago City Council in May 2020 sets the guidelines for the newly (re)legalized coach houses and ADUs including who will be able to build new ones. Ultimately the ordinance uses zoning regulations to determine who can build new coach houses in Chicago. In the simplest terms, any property owner who lives in a residential (“R”) zoning district, besides RS-1 and RS-2 zones, is allowed by right to build a new coach house or convert an existing room to an ADU. RS-1 and RS-2 zones are Chicago’s lowest density areas in terms of housing consisting of mostly single-family homes.

However, property owners in these zones can only build a new coach house after going through an extensive and costly process of obtaining a special use permit. Now, while the zoning districts are the simplest way to determine who can build a new coach house, there are still more varying rules based on type, size, and number of ADUs allowed as you examine the ordinance closer. We’ll explain this in further detail below.

Types of ADUs you can build in Chicago?

Chicago’s ADU ordinance essentially breaks down ADUs into two types: Coach Houses and Conversion Units. A coach house is any accessory dwelling unit that is detached from the primary residence. These are single units on the same lot as the primary residence that can be either above a garage or in a standalone structure. The primary residence on the lot cannot be larger than 4 units. Coach houses can be built new on a lot with an existing primary residence, or they can be built new on a vacant lot without an existing primary residence.

A conversion unit is any accessory dwelling unit attached to an existing primary residence. These are often basements or attics that were renovated to be a dwelling unit. The key difference between coach houses (besides being attached to the primary residence) is a conversion unit must be in an existing building that is at least 20 years old. It’s important to note that both a coach house and a conversion unit cannot be built on the same lot.

How big can a new coach house be?

New coach houses in Chicago cannot exceed 700 square feet in size and they cannot be taller than 22 feet in height. Additionally, the overall footprint of the building cannot be greater than 60% of the required rear setback.

How many ADUs can you have on your property?

The city limits coach houses to having one single dwelling unit. However, for conversion units the number of additional units you can build depends on how many existing units are in the property. The rules allow that you would be able to build the greater of 1 or 33 percent of the existing units rounded up or down to the nearest whole number. This means all allowable properties can build at least 1 unit. Anything beyond 1 unit is then based on the number of existing units.

So, to make that easy you can use a simple calculation to determine how many conversion units you can build on your property. This can be done by multiplying X by .33 where X = total number of existing units and rounding to the nearest whole number.

For example, if you have a 2 unit building the calculation would look like this:
2 x 0.33 = 0.66 rounded to the nearest whole number = 1 unit.
So in a building with 2 existing units you can build 1 ADU.

Another example is if you have a 5 unit building the calculation would be:
5 x 0.33 = 1.65 rounded to the nearest whole number = 2 units.
Therefore you can build up to 2 ADUs in a building with 5 existing units.

Guide to buying house with ADU
Old Couch House in Lakeview

Expanding an old coach house

You may recall earlier we stated it has been illegal to build new coach houses in Chicago since the 1950’s. However you still can find plenty of them all over the city that were constructed prior to the ban. For a long time property owners could only do incidental repairs and normal maintenance because of the city’s zoning code. So, if you owned one, you were limited to how much renovation you could do to these old coach houses. Under the new rules however existing coach houses can be expanded up to the sizes we described for new coach houses. So if you have an old coach house on your property that is only 18 feet tall it can now be expanded up to 22 feet or if it’s only 500 square feet you can now renovate it to be up to 700 square feet in size.

How expensive is it to build a coach house?

Coach houses generally cost less to build in Chicago than normal housing units. This is one of the reasons why many housing advocates and city officials support having coach houses in Chicago. Coach houses are generally smaller than your average home, and you can sometimes build them on land you already own. Therefore, costs can vary greatly from one ADU to the next. It depends on things like the existing condition of the property, the quality of construction materials, and the skill level of the contractor. 

It’s difficult to say exactly how expensive it is to build a coach house in Chicago since they have been illegal to build for so many years. However, we can look to other cities that have recently made ADUs more accessible to build through zoning reforms. According one 2017 study, the average cost to build an ADU in cities of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver was $156K.

In another area closer to Chicago, the Evanston Development Cooperative has researched building new coach houses in the nearby suburb estimating it would cost between $200 to $250 per square feet not including the cost of land. Based on Chicago’s ADU ordinance enforcing a maximum coach house size of 700 square feet, you’d be looking at a maximum cost to build of $175K based on these numbers.

How to finance your dream coach house

Financing your coach house can come in a variety of ways. You can use the equity in your property to obtain a line of credit to fund building it, for example. Other financing options include bridge loans, shared equity loans, and loans that borrow against the future value the ADU will add. There may also be grants from non-profits and community development financial institutions to offset some initial startup costs as well. This is thanks to the affordability benefits ADUs can add to the greater housing market in an area.

Guide to purchasing a home with coach house
Rear coach house above a car garage in Lincoln Park

Can you rent out an existing ADU in Chicago?

Renting an existing ADU in Chicago is certainly possible and many Chicago area renters do so every month. Many Chicagoans still rent the thousands of coach houses built prior to the revised zoning code in 1957 to this day. Additionally, many basements and attics have been converted into residential units. This requires property owners to go through a mandatory permitting and rezoning process, however. Due to the new ADU ordinance, even more renters are likely to move into spaces like this.

Renting out a coach house

For property owners, its important to remember that coach houses are only supposed to be one single dwelling unit. Additionally, you can’t rent coach houses and conversion units for a period of less than 31 days. Therefore, don’t expect to be able to use your coach house as a vacation or short-term rental. There are no restrictions on what you can charge for rent, but there are affordability requirements for conversion units.

Renting out your basement or attic

Renting out your basement or attic has slightly different rules than coach houses. If you have two or more conversion units, 50% of them need to have affordable rent prices. The price can’t be more than 30% of the income for someone earning 60% of the area’s median income. 

Should you buy a property with an ADU?

Buying property with an ADU really comes down to your lifestyle and what you want out of the property. One thing you’ll have to take into consideration is additional maintenance and upkeep that your ADU will need. You’ll be responsible for additional taxes, utilities, and other monthly expenses that come with having an ADU on your property.

However, there are many benefits such as an additional source of income you can earn from your tenants. Some people use ADUs as a space for elderly family members or an older child who has moved back home. Take the time to evaluate the responsibilities and opportunities that come with buying a property with an ADU. We can help you answer any questions you have when you’re ready to make a final decision.

Finding Chicago properties with a coach house

At Localize you can check every address in Chicago, including properties with coach houses all over the city. You can also filter your search to look for lots and land for sale, to build your own coach house. You can also search by certain amenities like listings with a basement or attic so you can learn if you have the opportunity to add a conversion unit.

Share this article
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Related guides

Find your next home on Localize