Just over a year and a half ago, Jane Ingalls retired as an Earth Sciences Librarian at Stanford University. Now on a fixed income, Ingalls knew she wouldn’t be able to afford to continue living in the Bay Area. But she did have land in Mendocino County. And she had known Stephen Marshall for years.
Marshall owns and operates Little House on the Trailer, a Petaluma-based business that has designed and manufactured secondary units for the past nine years. Also known as accessory dwelling units, these homes range from 400 to 800 square feet, are fully customizable and delivered with utility hookups, generally within two months.

After much research and consideration, Ingalls purchased her own Little House in September of 2016. “They were so pretty, so nicely designed,” she said, noting the showroom on Petaluma Boulevard North. She wanted windows that would take advantage of her property’s beautiful views, and she wanted the living room to be big enough for her family’s Oriental rug. She also opted for sliding glass doors, a deck on the south side, and linoleum wood flooring.

“From the time I ordered it until the time it was ready [for delivery],” said Ingalls, “it was just like two months—it was really fast.” Ingalls even went with Marshall to the manufacturing factory in the Central Valley, and was fascinated by the efficiency of the assembly line.

Ingalls’ home, which she is using as her primary residence, is 800 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. “Even though the rooms are small, I have so many windows and it looks out on so much open space that it doesn’t feel confined,” she said.

Little House on the Trailer also designs and manufactures smaller secondary units, but unlike the media darlings seen on TV, they can only be moved by a professional transport service. As of this year, new statewide legislation lowers costs and reduces requirements for secondary dwelling units. Sonoma County is currently considering implementing villages of accessory dwelling units to tackle homelessness. And in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, home care cottages receive special permitting.

Marshall and his team are currently working on a project in Healdsburg, where the City has completed all of its policy revisions to the new state regulations and have reduced fees by about half. The City also removed requirement for sprinklers, which can run to $10,000 potentially, and removed parking requirements mandated by the state. “All together I’d say there’s been an easy $20,000 removed from the burden,” said Marshall, who noted that prior parking requirements killed 90 percent of secondary unit projects.

A 70-year-old general contractor, Marshall built his first house in Inverness in 1973. After building about a dozen conventional houses, he became a cabinetmaker for 30 years, mostly supplying high-end houses in Stinson Beach and Pacific Heights. But after a few years, he changed course. “I decided to open up this other business because I kind of finished with the high-end world,” he said, “and I was curious about affordable housing—that’s actually driven my interest.”

Marshall attended Stanford University in the 1960s and studied product design, building some geodesic domes and recycled shacks up in the hills above Palo Alto with a community of design students. “And it’s really where my passion was,” he said. “I just couldn’t find an outlet for it. I thought about going to work for a mobile home manufacturer in Indiana, but at the time, they weren’t interested in radical young design students. So I moved to Marin County and became a builder.”

At Little House on the Trailer Marshall initially built everything by hand, with his crew. Now he’s using major factories, just to get the prices that his customers need. He used to do accessory dwelling units in Marin County for $300,000—just for the unit alone. But that’s not what’s inspiring to him.
“I’m excited, actually, passionate about, something being affordable, even more than something being the most extravagantly well built,” he said, “because I’ve done that. In my experiences it goes into second or third homes for very wealthy people. No one’s really benefitting.

“I’ve always felt this way—that there are people that have everything they need and people that don’t have everything that they need, and the people that don’t have it outnumber the people that do have it,” said Marshall. “I just think that even though I’ve got mine, I would be much happier that everybody had something modest than a few people having something grand.” SD





Robin Berardini knows that time is precious—and as a realtor, she knows a thing or two about housing.
So when her 82-year-old mother had to move out of the Southern California house that she long shared with her Italian sister, Isabella, Robin decided to bring her mom to Forestville, Robin’s home of 28 years, and provide her with her a place of her own.

“I didn’t want my mom to be put in assisted living. She would have been so sad, and it would have broken my heart. I needed to come up with another solution,” Robin said.

Fortunately, Robin’s solution had a positive ending—or rather, offered a new beginning. Today she and her mother Connie live 30 feet away from each other. “She’s right across the driveway… My mom has the highest spot and the best view on my property. She sees orchards, vineyards, redwood trees, the Geysers and Mount St. Helena from her chair on the porch,” Robin said. “And I get to see her every day.”

Recent state and local legislation have eased the costs and hurdles of making such a major move possible. Previously families would have had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a second unit on their properties for loved ones. The County of Sonoma now offers special use permits for temporary home-care cottages and has eased some restrictions for permanent second units.
This was exactly what Robin’s family needed. “When my mom was my age, she told me, ‘Honey, I don’t want to live with you. It’s important for us to have our autonomy.’ Since I had been a realtor for so long, I had heard this often. Then I found Stephen Marshall with Little House on the Trailer,” Robin said.
Robin met with Stephen at his Petaluma-based company, which builds what are best known as affordable backyard accessory dwelling units (ADUs). He builds two kinds: Home Care Cottages and Second Units.

The Home Care Cottages are recreational trailers that look like regular houses. To be eligible, the caretaker must have a physician’s note. Turnaround from start to finish can be swift—around 90 days, Stephen said. The cost to buy a basic trailer is $65,000; onsite expenses run about $15,000. There’s a $600 one-time fee the owner must pay to the county, and an annual $125 renewal fee thereafter, he explained.

Second units are permanent buildings that become an improvement to the owner’s property. They require a building permit, an engineered foundation, utility hookups and fire protection. At Little House on the Trailer, the units cost $100,000, and typically $50,000 in permits and site work (see story next page by Samantha Campos).

“Because things are so particular to sites, general information is hard to make useful or relevant to individuals. You need a consultant to embark on one of these projects and I have a consultant for obtaining permits, and I refer people to him,” Stephen said.

Though Robin has 30 years of real estate experience, she said hiring a consultant to navigate the process was important. Otherwise, “It’s confusing,” she said. “The county has its own set of guidelines, which they are loosening, and the city has its own set of guidelines, too.” She started by talking to Stephen Marshall, who guided her through the process. “He was a godsend… having that man by my side. It was so emotional and I wanted to make sure I was doing everything right.”

Robin said they looked at floor plans and talked about her mom’s needs. “The unit is so efficient. We upgraded to French doors and 9-foot ceilings. We have a full kitchen, which we upgraded with a dishwasher. Down the hall there’s a bathroom and a full-size shower, and to the right is her generous bedroom with a full-size closet. We put her TV on the wall and installed a pocket door to save space. In the living room, in the corner, we got a circular dining table. We bought two couches made by women in South Carolina that turn into two single beds. It’s darling. “

Because Robin works full-time, she also hired a companion for her mother who prepares meals four days a week and “gets her out and about during the day. James has a cute dog named Jasper, who’s a little ambassador for Sonoma County. James takes my mom out and they go galavanting all over Sonoma County,” Robin said.

It took seven months for Robin to orchestrate packing and moving her mother from Southern California, where she had lived her entire life, into her custom-made cottage in Forestville. “She thinks she is in paradise—in fact that’s what she tells me: “I live in paradise,” Robin said.

The change in housing laws that enabled Robin to place a cottage on her property has made a marked difference in Robin’s family life and future. “It’s overwhelmingly beautiful to see my mother blossom and be happy and to get to know her. I’ve learned more about my mom in the last six months than the last 40 years. My heart is very full for her,” she said.

Robin’s advice to others who may be considering what she and her mom have done? “Don’t waste time, life is precious. Enjoy your family.”

Real thoughts from real people, word for word. 

“Steve is incredibly easy to work with; he listens carefully to what you want, then wises you up on what won’t work and tells you a slightly better way to do it. During the design phase he was able to talk us through the building codes and worked very quickly and thoroughly. His crew is also extremely skilled.

Steve was able to keep us within our budget by suggesting less expensive materials where applicable and finding used materials. The finished product is the bell of the neighborhood – there are plenty of windows to the north, exactly what an artist needs. I’m very pleased in every respect with working with him and the finished product.”

– Point Reyes Resident

“I want to … applaud you for creating designs that accommodate individual’s different capacities, needs, and function.  The options that you offer are a great sustainable and energy efficient alternative in our current economy.”

Bret Glass, Columbia, Missouri

“Stephen Marshall, the proprietor of The Little House on the Trailer, was for many years a cabinet maker with an exceptionally good aesthetic sense and you can see that refined and practical sensibility in every Little House he builds. He is also a thoughtful and thorough person who has done a good deal of research regarding the zoning laws. Lastly, he is fair-minded and reasonable, in my opinion regarding the value you’ll get for the price. Definitely a person you’d want to do business with.”

Mike Litchfield, The West Marin Citizen

“I highly recommend a visit to the display lot of LHOTT, located near the Petaluma outlets mall. If you have ever envisioned building a small house/studio with the dimensions legally allowed in your town, but hesitate to pursue it beyond the ‘thinking about it stage’ … you will find several different layouts and sizes there to ‘try on.’ I have … found the owner and staff to be very helpful, non pushy, and never engaging in the expected ‘salespersons’ push.’ If you’re thinking about it…GO, Take a LOOK!”

Rich O., Inverness CA

“The folks at LHOTT are great … every time I stop by they are very helpful and their craftsmanship appears to be excellent. Finally, someone is making tiny houses we can all afford and use. I recommend their art studios to my real estate clients whenever we are looking at a house that doesn’t have a studio…they’re the perfect solution.”

CiCi W., Forestville, CA

“There was not one model from a tiny room of your own to the largest homes and everything between that I did not absolutely love.”

Sylvia Nichols, Washington State

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.