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Myriad limits placed on in-law apartments

Recently I received two calls in one week from prospective clients looking for information about in-law apartments. I've been practicing real estate law for nearly 13 years, and I remember getting only one phone call before on this topic.

After talking with both of the callers, I took to the Internet to see whether in-law apartments are a trend. After doing my usual hunt on Twitter (#in-law apartment) and on Google ("in-law apartments Tewksbury MA"), I realized that many families are choosing this type of living arrangement.

Although I love my parents dearly, this living situation isn't for me. It's too close. But if it suits you, here's some legal information so you know what you're getting into.

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I looked at the zoning laws in my town to get a better understanding of the restrictions. First, according to the bylaws, the space is not called an in-law apartment; it's a family suite.

My town defines it as "an accessory dwelling unit within a single family dwelling subordinate in size … [that] may only be occupied by brothers, sisters, maternal parents and grandparents, paternal parents and grandparents, in-laws and/or children of the residing owners of the principle [sic] dwelling unit."

Besides the family-member restriction, there are limits on the size of the unit when you are putting on an addition.

It must be no larger than 800 square feet and have no more than one bedroom. If you apply for and are awarded a special permit, you can add 200 more feet and another bedroom. Want a third? No. Under no circumstances.

There are also restrictions on how many people can live in the unit. In Tewksbury, it's three. Want a separate front door? Nope. You can have only a side or rear exit.

The homeowner must complete and sign an affidavit, deliverable to the building commissioner, attesting that he or she has not violated any of the provisions of the bylaw.

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If you decide that you want your parents or in-laws to move in with you and seek to build an addition, there are several requirements to get the ball rolling: First, you must file and pay the appropriate fee for the permit; second, you need a certified plot plan; third, you must provide three sets of drawings of the proposed structure; and fourth, you must file and record two documents at the Registry of Deeds indicating your intention to create an in-law living situation.

If you want to pursue this living arrangement, find out the restrictions in your community. It will benefit you now and when you try to sell your home. If you don't have a legal in-law apartment, you can't advertise that you do.


Hugh Fitzpatrick is the founding partner of New England Title and Fitzpatrick & Associates PC, a Tewksbury-based law firm specializing in real estate conveyancing. Send your questions to Address@globe.com.