Because building a tiny house in my backyard made me an ADU evangelist

  • Joyce Higashi is a San Jose native who built an ADU in her backyard in 2020 for $230,000.
  • He leases the unit to traveling nurses for three months at a time and charges $3,000 a month.
  • Higashi has become a self-proclaimed “ADU evangelist” since building her own.

This story is based on a conversation with Joyce Higashi, who built an assisted living unit, also known as an ADU, in her backyard in San Jose in 2020. Now, she advocates for ADUs at events throughout the Bay Area. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

I am a native of San Jose. I’ve been gone for 15 years. I went to school and lived in San Francisco for a while. I never planned to go back to San Jose, but somehow I ended up here.

I bought a house in 2000 when I turned 40. It’s the first and only house I’ve ever owned. It’s a small house on a large lot, and I always thought I’d expand on it, but that never happened.

I left my job at Oracle Corporation in 2015 and am now semi-retired. I’ve been meaning to do something to get back to work but haven’t found it yet. So in 2017, I told myself, in the meantime, I need to have some passive income.

That’s when I decided to put an ADU in my backyard — before ADUs were even remotely popular in California.

the exterior of Joyce Higashi's ADU in San Jose

The exterior of Joyce Higashi’s ADU.

Courtesy of Abodu

Through the ADU builder Abodu, I had a 500 square foot one bedroom ADU built in my backyard. I paid $230,000 for it, start to finish.

Now, I rent the ADU for $3,000 a month to nurses who travel for three months at a time.

It was really hard to find what I was looking for at first

At first, I looked into doing a custom build because I thought that was the only option I had at the time. Again, this was before ADUs were popular here.

It was so confusing to me: you have to get an architect to design it, then you have to do all this engineering, you need ground inspections, and then a permit — which is supposed to be a nightmare.

Additionally, I talked to a couple of contractors trying to figure out how much it would cost and how long it would take. No one could tell me exactly because it all depends on how much the architect is and how much the license is.

I was a little disappointed with the idea, plus I didn’t really want to draw. I have no desire or skills to design a house. But all the pre-approved plans I had looked at were kind of boring. They looked like boxes.

I just didn’t want to spend that much money on something that was okay, so I put it on hold for a while.

Then, I became a prefab retrofitter

Then two friends within the same week had seen Abodu on the news and said “I think that’s what you want to do”. So I looked it up online and saw that they were prefab units.

At first I wasn’t interested. In my mind, prefab meant RV and I didn’t want a RV in my yard.

But then I went to the showroom in Redwood City and immediately, as soon as I walked in, I went, oh my god, this is it. I loved it. It was much bigger than I expected and had high ceilings and lots of lights. It was very modern, which is very much my aesthetic.

an example of what the inside of an Abodu looks like.

The interior of another Abodu ADU.

Courtesy of Abodu

One of the reasons I chose it was because I didn’t have to make a single design decision. All I wanted was to sit there. I told them I want it exactly as it was in your showroom and they said, ok, we can do it.

I took out a private loan through a bank to finance it.

COVID slowed down the process, but it all worked out

In early 2020, they sent someone to do the foundation. Then on the day he was supposed to be there, he was delayed due to the weather. Then COVID happened, so it was actually two months late.

Delivered in May. do not understand because they had taken care of everything but they had to block my way because this huge crane came.

The crane lifted the ADU out of the back of a truck, attached it, and then the ADU flew over my house into my yard in about four minutes.

Then, once it landed, it was connected to the utilities and a final inspection was done. After that, I built the deck and did the landscaping.

an aerial view of Joyce Higashi's home in San Jose

Aerial view of the ADU by Joyce Higashi.

Courtesy of Abodu

I started renting the unit in 2021 to traveling nurses.

I didn’t rent it out all of 2020 because, you know, it was COVID and my original plan was to Airbnb it.

But then someone told me about traveling nurses. So I listed my unit on Furnished Finders — a website for traveling nurses and other traveling professionals — and someone got in touch.

I got my first tenant in May 2021 and have never had a license since. I liked the nurses — the lease is at least three months and most of them have extended their stay.

Now, I’m an ADU advocate

I just love going to networking events and talking about ADUs. Since I don’t have a job title, I just want to say that I am an ADU evangelist.

Joyce Higashi on her porch

Joyce Higashi on the porch of her ADU.

Courtesy of Abodu

I give presentations at networking events in the Bay Area. I explain what an ADU is, what an attached versus detached is, things like that. Then I’ll just have to show my photos. I give them different resources.

On the last Friday of February, I gave a presentation about ADUs at an event and invited people to come see the unit on Tuesday because that was the day my tenant moved in and it was before the tenant moved out.

When they opened the doors to LaCantina, those who came to see the unit were surprised. It’s like its own little private oasis.

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