In-law Suites in Massachusetts- What You Need to Know

In-law suite- what you need to knowIn-Law Suites, Mother In Law Apartments, Accessory Units, Family Suites or whatever you call them are quite common around me in Tewksbury MA. 

But you can certainly run into them anywhere in Massachusetts or across the country.  So what do you need to know about an In-Law Suite in your home?

With multi-generation living becoming more and more popular, family suites are a great way to have multiple family members live under one roof. 

Whether it is parents, in-laws, siblings, etc… there can be certain benefits and more than one family unit under one roof is gaining in popularity.

As home buyers and home sellers that are interested in homes with an in-law suite it is important to understand what it means.

The Purpose of An In-Law Suite

The true purpose of an in law unit is for the use of extended family to have separate living quarters in the main home.

Maybe your needs are having parents around that can help with child care, aging parents that need extra attention, shared living expenses or a family member who needs specialized care. 

An in law suite can suit many multi-generational living needs.

Note that a family suite is not turning your property into a multi-family home where you can rent to anyone. 

An accessory dwelling is specifically meant for a family member and cannot be rented to the public.  If the town grant’s permission for your in-law suite there will be some strict criteria that need to be met.

Zoning of a Family or Accessory Unit, or In Law Suite

Bear in mind Zoning By-Laws can vary drastically from town to town and state to state.  This is being written from my experience with family suites in my general area of northeastern Massachusetts. 

Before getting involved in any project, check with your building department, know the rules and get it properly permitted.

Here in Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Billerica and North Andover Massachusetts, you can build an in-law unit by right with certain provisions.  No special permits or variances are required.  In other towns, you may have to seek out a special permit and/or variance.

In-law suites are subject to zoning laws and can be variable from each town, but all communities have some commonality.

Criteria For A Family Suite

  • Size-  Size will usually be restricted to 700-1200 square feet or a percentage of the building’s square footage.
  • Occupancy-  Occupancy of an in law or family suite will be limited to up to 2-3 people and they all must be related.
  • Bedrooms-  Limited to 1-2 bedrooms for the unit.
  • Appearance-  The original building must retain its single family look.
  • Permitting-  Permitting for your in-law suite may be on a yearly basis or with each new owner.
  • Parking-  The property must be able to handle additional parking. Separate driveways and front entrances are not allowed.

Building codes need to be followed and will be enforced.  Common mistakes I have run into have prevented in-law suites from being “legal” without serious modifications are:

Mostly these mistakes arise in basement in-law apartments.  You can’t just throw in a bedroom, slap in a bath and a kitchen and call it an in-law.

Home Sellers and What You Need to Know About In-Law Suites

Yes, in most cases legal and properly permitted in-laws can carry some value.  The keywords are legal and permitted! 

If you are going to take the time and the considerable expense to build your mother-in-law her own little apartment take the time to do it right.

Without your in-law suite permitted through proper channels, it will have little to no value on resale whatsoever.  You are wasting 10s of thousands of dollars by not properly permitting your in law unit.

The pool of home buyer’s specifically looking for homes with in-law apartments is small. But if your unit is done properly, your will gain interest.  There are buyers out there that will only consider homes that have an accessory unit.

And, home buyers looking specifically for homes with in-laws will also pay a premium if the in-law unit is well thought out.  The finish matches the rest of the house, the unit makes sense and the new owner can get a permit for the unit.

Renting Out An Unpermitted Unit To The General Public

I have had buyers in the past who want to buy single family homes and rent out the illegal accessory unit to someone other than family.  I spoke with real estate attorney Rick Carter about what liability might come with doing so.

While the issues can be quite varied you are going to carry some liability.  First and foremost, the city can make you remove your tenant because the unit is illegal. Upon removing the tenant you are not completing a contractual obligation.  This certainly can get costly.

If there are specific safety violations that cause serious injury or death you are over a barrel if a lawsuit should pursue.

The last consideration is your insurance coverage could be in jeopardy if a renter makes a claim or there is damage to the house. Insurance companies will often not cover claims because of issues that arise with unpermitted work or unintended use.

What Home Buyers Need to Know About Mother In-law Suites In Massachusetts

If you are a home buyer who needs the benefits an in-law suite can provide, a nicely and properly permitted suite will come at a premium. 

The premium should only be paid if the unit is properly permitted. Or, you know it can be permitted. 

If it can’t be properly permitted, while you may use it at such under the radar (not recommended) it could hurt you come time for resale. Renting an unpermitted unit comes with liabilities and risks.

As an agent, I see in-law suites or in-law potential marketed in real estate listings all the time.  Often the statement is not true.  The in-law has never been permitted or can’t be permitted.

Do Your Research

If you are buying a home with the intent of using part of the space as an in-law apartment do your due diligence.  Or if you are paying a premium for the in-law apartment already in place do your due diligence. Using a Massachusetts buyer’s agent when it comes time to do your research a property is invaluable. 

I always either check to see if an in-law has been permitted.  If it hasn’t been permitted, I get confirmation from the building department if it can be legally permitted and what is involved.

in-law suites, family suites, inlaw apartment

Two Cases of An In Law Apartment Causing Problems for a Buyer

In the past four years, I have been the listing agent for two sellers who bought their home directly from a listing agent.  The seller was marketing their home as having an in-law apartment.

In the first case, the home had an absolutely beautiful in-law apartment in the lower level.  When I took on the listing I did my due diligence to see if these homes truly had units that could obtain the proper permits.  Unfortunately, there was no way of easily making it a permitted in-law.

While we did not make any claims on it being legal as an in-law suite, it of course brought in buyers who were interested in using it as such.  I also priced it in line with a home that had an in-law upon my client’s instruction.

Safety Is Of Utmost Concern 

We accepted an offer and headed to closing. Upon the fire department doing their smoke detector inspection, they reported the house to the town. The primary issue was the bedroom being deemed unsafe because there was no egress to the outside in case of a fire.

The other issue was it was too large and there was a complete lack of natural light and ventilation.

The town revoked the home’s occupancy permit two weeks before closing.  Unfortunately, we had to dismantle part of the kitchen and the bedroom that was not up to building codes and cap the plumbing in the wall.  In the end, we had to discount the property for the buyer to have them stay in the deal.

Get It Done Right

In the second case, a family bought a home that was separated into two distinct living areas.  Upon doing some significant renovations, the town discovered the “accessory unit”.  They made the owners dismantle the second kitchen as it could not be easily be made into a permitted accessory unit for a reasonable cost.

In both cases the buyers bought these homes with the intent of using the “in-law apartments” accordingly.   They both paid a premium for the in-law units that had to be dismantled.  Just because a seller or listing agent calls it an in law suite, does not make it one.  Do your research.


There are certainly many benefits that an in-law apartment can provide a homeowner who has extended family living needs.  Just make sure your in-law suite in Massachusetts is properly permitted by the town.  It will save you money and aggravation down the road.

For home sellers, this is another case where doing renovations without proper approval and permits can cost you dearly when it comes time to sell.  While you’re saving money by skipping the proper process, you will end up paying for it in the end.

As far as home buyers go, make sure you are buying what you think you are buying.  And, don’t get caught paying for the seller’s mistake of not getting the suite approved and permitted.  A simple trip to the building department will get to the bottom of it.

Other Resources:

In-law Suites What You Need to Know is written by Kevin Vitali of EXIT Group One Real Estate.

If you would like to sell your home or buy a new home give me a call at 978-360-0422.  Let’s get the process started.

Real Estate Services in the following areas: Northeast Massachusetts, Merrimack Valley, North Shore and Metrowest. Including the following communities and the surrounding area- Amesbury, Andover, Billerica, Burlington, Chelmsford, Dracut, Groveland, Haverhill, Lowell, Melrose, Merrimac, Methuen, Middleton, North Andover, North Reading, Reading, Stoneham, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Wakefield, Wilmington, Westford


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