scorecardI transform garages into upscale apartments so homeowners can rent them out and make passive income
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I transform garages into upscale apartments so homeowners can rent them out and make passive income

Kelsey Neubauer   

I transform garages into upscale apartments so homeowners can rent them out and make passive income
LifeThelife4 min read
  • Rebecca Möller said it seemed "impossible" to build Bay Area housing that people could afford.
  • She founded a company, Symbihom, that turns otherwise industrial garages to livable spaces.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rebecca Möller, 64, the founder of Symbihom, a company that transforms garages in the San Francisco Bay Area into apartments that homeowners can then rent out to tenants. In that part of California, these units are often called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, because they are additional homes built on the same lot as the primary residence.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I started my company in 2020 after I came across a BBC article about how Berlin and London are trying to solve their housing crisis through transforming garages into living units.

I saw an opportunity to build a replicable, scalable model. So I designed a product that's modular — that can go inside a garage — and San Jose preapproved it.

I got my first investors in May of 2021, and then I built my first model. The walls are proprietary modular panels, constructed off-site by a prefab factory, and already have electrical and plumbing inside. They clip in place on a concrete floor, and then they are strapped up above. I use power and water from the house itself.

All of the elements that go inside the unit except for the walls are then taken to a warehouse, where they get aggregated into a pod. Then they are trucked to the site of the garage, along with the wall panels, and installed inside the garage. All in all, after permitting, it doesn't take longer than four weeks to put the whole thing together.

My units have sold for $150,000 to $220,000. So far, I've built four units — with five more in the pipeline — throughout San Jose, San Mateo, and Mountain View.

My previous jobs prepared me to run a real-estate startup

I was born in North Texas. I went to the University of Texas-Arlington to get my undergraduate in civil engineering but didn't become a professional engineer. Instead, I started my real-estate career in construction in a global cost consulting company in Fort Worth. There, I trained as a quantity surveyor and estimator.

The first contractor I went to work with was the largest in Dallas. I was putting 55-story buildings together, mixed-use properties and hotels. I moved up to Philadelphia years later to join the largest contractor in the metro area, working on data centers, operations centers, and hospitals.

I did all the purchase contract writing, cost controls and claims on the field of the Wells Fargo Center, home to the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. In 1997, I started my own company to oversee the interests of Fortune 500 companies and worked for major companies like IBM and Verizon.

My career in the commercial space taught me how to write a contract, keep people accountable, and be fair. It's really important to understand what needs to go into a number estimate. You really need someone at the table who has the knowledge to provide realistic estimate.

I moved to the Bay Area

I came to the Bay Area in 2017 to oversee some high-rise residential projects for a commercial developer. Then I was brought in by a university — that the state had given a building to — to work on a feasibility study. The university planned to build the project for their teachers and staff. It's a detailed analysis of a project, how much it will cost, and how likely it is to succeed.

I realized the project would cost about a $1 million per unit to build, which could not generate a below-market-rate solution for the university. Simply put, the rents didn't pay for the project. On top of that, I realized that the teachers and staff made below the average median income of the region, $160,000 a year.

That was my a-ha moment. I started thinking about what I could do. That's how this all started.

The living spaces I install are unique to each garage

To start, I go out and visit a homeowner, do an assessment, and take measurements of the garage. I have a really fancy laser that scans the space. Once we're gone, I take an as-is of the inside of the garage that I share with all of my professionals.

My studio accessory dwelling unit is anywhere from 170 square feet to 400 square feet for a one-car garage or a small two-car garage. My one- or two-bedroom ADU can range anywhere from a 420-square-foot unit in a large two-car garage to a 1,200-square-foot unit in a three-car garage.

All units have a full bathroom with shower, vanity, and toilet. They also have a kitchen with a full-size refrigerator and freezer, an exhaust hood and stovetop, quartz countertops, a convection oven, and a sink.

The shower walls are also quartz, and there is a light on dimmers in each room. The floors are cork and bamboo, and there are solid-core barn doors inside the units.

In the one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, there is also an 18-inch dishwasher in the kitchen and a tower washer-dryer.

I love building something beautiful while adding housing

The most rewarding part of my business is being able to make a high-quality product that enables my costumers to make extra income through renting the unit out.

I really started doing this as a way to to solve a problem. Sure, my goal is to sell units, but along the way I am helping to solve a problem while making a profit.