In-Law Suites, Mother In Law Apartment, Accessory Unit, Family Suite 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.
Whether it is parents, siblings, or another family member. With multi generation living becoming more and more popular, in-law apartments are a great way to have multiple family member under one roof. 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 parents that can help with child care, aging parents that need extra attention, shared living expense or a family member who needs specialized care.
Note that family suite is not turning your property into a multi family home where you can rent to anyone. It is specifically for an extended or immediate family member. If the town grants you permission for your apartment there will be some strict criteria that needs to be met.
Zoning of a Family or Accessory Unit
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. Before getting involved in any project check with your building department 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 area to area there is some commonality you will see,
- Size- Size will usually be restricted to 800-1200 square feet or a percentage of the buildings square footage.
- Occupancy- Occupancy will be limited to up to 2-3 people and they must be related.
- Bedrooms- Limited to 1-2 bedrooms for the unit.
- Appearance- The original building must retain it’s single family look.
- Permitting- Permitting for such 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 usually allowed)
In any case, all building codes to make sure the accessory unit is safe and sound will still be enforced. Common mistakes I have run into have prevented in-law suites from being “legal” with out serious modifications are:
- No windows or improper windows for the bedroom.
- Septic does not handle the additional bedrooms.
- The unit does not have enough natural light. Many building departments require 8 to 10% of an area to be window.
Mostly these mistakes arise in basement in-law apartments. You cant 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 significant 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.
With out it your in-law permitted through proper channels, it will have little to no value on resale what so ever. You are throwing away 10’s of thousands of dollars.
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. And home buyers looking for 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 makes 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 un-permitted addition of a in-law apartment.
Home Buyers- What You Need to Know About In-Law Suites
If you are a home buyer who needs the benefits of an in-law suite, 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 with out the 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 it could hurt you come time for resale.
As an agent, I see in-law suite or in-law potential all of the time. Often the statement is not true. The in-law has never been permitted or can’t be permitted.
If you are buying a home with the intent of using part of the space as an in-law do your due diligence. Using a 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, where 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 permittable in-law.
While we did not not make any claims on it being permittable 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.
We sold the home, upon the fire department doing their smoke detector inspection they reported the house to the town.
The town revoked the homes occupancy permit two weeks before closing. Unfortunately we had to dismantle part of the kitchen and the bedroom 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.
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 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 your saving money be 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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