From spare room to dream home: Napa family’s innovative ADU living

The Mastons had to fight for the city’s approval — but ultimately won.|

Several boxes containing Robert Maston’s beloved Nike shoe collection are stacked on a shelf in a walk-in closet at the new home the Napa man shares with his wife, Lala, and the couple’s two teenage children.

The space is a godsend for the couple, who until recently were living out of a spare bedroom in a family member’s home. But the perks don’t end there.

With modern appliances, vaulted ceilings, central heating and air and other amenities, the 1,000-square-foot space is everything the family of four could hope for.

It’s also not a traditional single-family home at all, but what is believed to be the first three-bedroom, two-bath accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, permitted in the city of 80,000 people.

While “she-sheds” and granny units are commonplace, an ADU of this scale is a novel concept, and perhaps a window into the future of affordable housing options in high-priced communities like Napa.

The Mastons had to fight for the city’s approval — but ultimately won.

Innovative solution

Unable to afford the mortgage on a traditional house, the Mastons purchased an ADU from San Francisco-based Villa Homes, which bills itself as California’s largest builder of the prefabricated structures.

After assembly elsewhere, the ADU was transported by truck to southwest Napa, where it was lifted by crane over Lala Maston’s parent’s house and lowered onto a concrete foundation.

The Maston family had been living with Lala’s parents. With the addition of the ADU, they took up residence in the backyard.

“It was like, surreal, because we’d been talking about it for so long,” Lala Maston said of the moment when she and her husband took the keys to their new home in mid-December. “It felt a little like we were strangers, and this was an Airbnb. But then my mom came over, and she’s like, ‘Hey neighbor.’”

Almost on cue this weekday evening, Beatriz Andrade knocked on the front door before entering with the couple’s mail and a plate of homemade Mexican shortbread cookies.

Speaking in Spanish, Andrade said she was happy her daughter and grandkids could remain in Napa, and so close to her and her husband, Gustavo, a retired vineyard worker.

“It takes a village to raise kids, and what’s better than having the village nearby,” Lala Maston said in her kitchen, which features custom countertops, a large side by side refrigerator and space for a washer and dryer.

In the spacious living room was a large 75-inch TV, and on a coffee table, a small flower pot shaped like a Nike sneaker.

Napa prohibits larger ADUs

Napa has experienced rapid growth in the number of permitted ADUs over the past eight years — from three in 2015 to 61 in 2023. A total of 292 of the structures were permitted in that time, according to city data.

Napa’s municipal code prohibits ADUs with more than two bedrooms. The Mastons were initially denied a permit for their new home on that basis. The couple appealed, and won.

City officials ultimately deferred to California law, which permits ADUs of a size large enough to accommodate three bedrooms.

“So long as any building code requirements for minimum bedroom size are met, and the size of the ADU is met, then a 3-bedroom ADU is allowable. It’s a subtle nuance,” Ricky Caperton, Napa’s planning manager, said in an email to The Press Democrat.

Caperton said he’d have to review every application to determine whether the Mastons were the first in Napa to receive a permit for a three-bedroom ADU.

Regardless, he felt confident stating such an ADU is “atypical” and “uncommon” for Napa. He added the city is planning to update its zoning code to be consistent with state law.

ADUs designed by Villa Homes range from between 450 and 1,200 square feet, with room to accommodate up to three bedrooms, according to Sean Roberts, the San Francisco-based company’s CEO.

“So long as the unit fits physically into the yard within the required setbacks, you're pretty much good to go,” Roberts said via Zoom from his home office in Denver. “It’s relatively seamless to be able to build what you want, so long as you’ve got space for it.”

Villa Homes has completed 250 ADU projects across California since 2020. The company designs and sells the structures; the actual construction is outsourced.

“It allows us to find the factory that can build the right product, the right quality standard, as quickly as possible and the lowest possible price, because we’re kind of aggregating all this demand from lots of different customers,” Roberts said. “We can pipe that into the right factories and get the best execution for our customers.”

The subcontracted installation work, including transportation, plumbing and electrical, is done under a general contracting license held by Villa.

“That gives us the flexibility to kind of tap into our supply chain when and where it's needed, wherever it is in the state, rather than having our folks kind of driving all over the place, kind of inefficiently,” Roberts said. “And it helps us partner with a lot of smaller businesses that provide these services to us for our customers, which is kind of a pretty good symbiotic relationship.”

Why an ADU?

ADUs serve a range of purposes, including increasing the square footage of existing homes, rental income and maintaining ties with multiple generations of families.

They also can be a more affordable living option for families, particularly in places like Napa County, where the median price for a home sold in 2023 was $844,000, according to the Bay Area Real Estate Information Service.

As a continuing sign of home-buying challenges, the 893 single-family homes sold in Napa County in 2023 represented the lowest total in 23 years, according to the agency.

The Mastons felt they could never afford a traditional home in Napa, particularly after Robert lost his warehouse job to downsizing in 2018 and the family had to survive on Lala’s income as a crisis counselor for NEWS, a Napa nonprofit that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Lala asked that her real first name not be used due to the sensitive nature of her work.

Unable to afford their townhome, the couple moved into Lala’s parents’ house with their two children. While grateful for the help, they felt shattered by their circumstances.

“I cried to be quite honest with you because I was like, ‘How am I in this situation in my 30s?’” Lala said. “I’ve been so independent my whole life. We’ve been able to live on our own. And now we’re back living with my parents.”

Robert eventually found work as a delivery driver with a painting company. And, living rent-free with Lala’s parents, the couple were able to save money.

One day, Gustavo Andrade suggested they look into an ADU. They were reluctant initially to consider the idea because it would mean Gustavo would lose the prized fruit trees he lovingly tended in the backyard.

“He was like, ‘I would do anything for you,’” Lala recalled.

The Mastons attended a workshop on ADUs in Santa Rosa. That eventually led them to Villa and designing their own home from the company’s myriad range of colors, styles and amenities.

Roberts said financing ADUs remains a major barrier for many consumers. Most of the options, he said, including cash-out refinances and personal loans, are substantially more expensive than a typical first-lien mortgage.

“We need more second-lien products to really make ADU financing work well,” Roberts wrote in an opinion piece posted on HousingWire.

The Mastons obtained a construction loan from Redwood Credit Union to pay for their new home. The total amount: $420,000. That amount includes all of the service connections and custom upgrades to the home, such as skylights.

The adjustable 20-year term has an initial interest rate of 5.9%. By comparison, the average interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage is around 7%.

The couple are looking forward to springtime and landscaping around their new home, and to spending time with Gustavo and Beatriz, who are never more than a few steps away.

“It’s everything we need and then some,” Lala said.

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