In-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 member under one roof. Whether it is parents, in laws, siblings, etc… they do provide certain benefits and are certainly gaining in popularity.
As home buyers and home sellers that are interested in either buying a home with an in-law suite or selling a home 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.
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 suite 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. It 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 needs 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 permit or variances are required. In other towns, you may have to seek out a special permit and/or variance.
While the Zoning is highly variable from town to town, there is some commonality you will see between each community.
- Size- Size will usually be restricted to 700-1200 square feet or a percentage of the buildings 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. Sseparate driveways and front entrances are not usually allowed to
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:
- No windows or improper windows for the bedroom.
- Septic does not handle the additional bedrooms.
- Lack of proper egress.
- To large.
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 in your home, 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 throwing away 10s of thousands of dollars by not properly permitting your home with the accessory in law suite.
While the pool of home buyer’s specifically looking for homes with in-law apartments is small, if done properly your home will definitely 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 and the new owner can get a permit for the unit.
Renting Out an Illegal Unit
I have had buyers in the past 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, now you are stuck with contract obligations you can not meet. This certainly can get costly.
Also, 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 because of an unpermitted addition of an in-law apartment.
What You Need To Homes For Sale With Mother In-law Suites In Massachusetts
If you are a home buyer who needs the benefits an in-law suite can provide, a nicely done suite will come at a premium. You will certainly pay more for a home with a finished suite compared to the same home that is fully finished without the in law suite.
But only pay that premium if that suite has been properly permitted or you know it can be permitted with the town. 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.
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 more importantly, can’t be permitted.
If you are buying a home with the intent of using part of the space as an in-law apartment do your due diligence. Using a Massachusetts buyer’s agent when it comes time to do your due diligence is invaluable.
I always either check or encourage my buyer clients to check to see if an in-law has been permitted. If it hasn’t been permitted, I try to get a sense from the building department if it can and what is involved.
Two Case 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 as using it as such. I also priced it in line with a home that had an in-law upon my clients instruction.
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 not an egress to the outside in case of a fire.
The other issues 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.
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” and they made the owners dismantle the second kitchen as it could not be easily be made into a permitted 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 with the town to 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. 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 another’s mistake. A simple trip to the building department will get to the bottom of it.
- Paul Sian Should I Get A Permit for My Renovation?
- Debbie Drummond Go DIY or Hire a Professional Contractor
- Ellen Pitts What You Should Investigate During Your Home Inspection Period
- Anita Clark Renovation Mistakes
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 and let’s get the process started.
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