Real Estate: The Lowdown on Accessory Apartments

Some of you may already know that the City of Newton recently passed an ordinance allowing accessory apartments to be legalized. Of course, this has raised many questions about what constitutes an “accessory apartment.” In this post, I’ll try to clear up some questions, but be sure to check with the city’s inspectional services department before undertaking any construction project. A permit is always required and in some cases a special permit.

An accessory apartment is a separate, secondary housing unit located in or on a single or two family property.

It can be a distinct part of the house itself, such as a basement or attic, or in a building located on your property like a carriage house or garage. This unit must be smaller than the primary unit, and must be owned by the property. It cannot be an opportunity to divide your land to create a saleable unit. The accessory unit is a full, self-contained housing unit with its own entrance, kitchen, bath, and living space. The homeowner may choose to live in either the main unit or the accessory unit.

Why is this now allowed? Newton recognizes that we having a changing demographic and these types of units enable older individuals to live independently in the same, but separate, space of a child or caregiver. It also allows young adults to live separately from their parents, yet still technically in the same structure. Accessory apartments offer less expensive housing options; they use less energy and provide financial incentives.   

If you’re not sure your home meets the criteria, there are meetings held weekly with prospective applicants. In a nutshell, here are the steps to move forward: 

  1. Contact the planning department to set up an appointment.
  2. The permitting process – your property is relegated to the Accessory Apartment Application or a Special Permit category. Obviously, the special permit is a more arduous endeavor. However, the review is usually completed in 45 days.
  3. At this point, a public notice is required to inform the public of the proposed development. City Staff will guide the homeowner through this phase.
  4. The decision (cue dramatic music) Upon completion of review process Inspectional Services or the approved Board Order (special permits), your application will either be denied, approved in full or with additional conditions.
  5. The final step is applying for the building permit.

While this may seem like a complicated process, the city does a great job advising you through the phases. A few rules apply:

  • One apartment per lot
  • The structure containing the apartment must have been constructed no less than 10 years prior to application
  • The unit must be a minimum of 250 square feet and maximum of 1000 square feet
  • Exterior changes can be made to meet Building, Fire and Health codes
  • Any addition or alteration constructed within 4 years prior to application date may NOT be used to meet the dimensional requirement of accessory apartment without a special permit
  • The accessory must have a minimum of one parking space in addition to required parking spaces of the main dwelling
  • The apartment parking area must be screened from abutters.

So, what do I think of all this? For the most part, I like it. We have a serious affordable housing shortage. Combine that with a lack of smaller units for seniors who would rather not move into Boston or Brookline or most importantly, don’t have the 2-3 million required to get a small condo. Newton has only a handful of condo complexes or apartment buildings with units all on one floor or with elevators. Parents and children resist living with each other but this would enable parents to be safe yet remain independent while allowing for the younger family close but separate proximity to parents and grandparents. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind making changes to homes if you don’t fit a certain time period. It is a step in the right direction to keep Newton moving forward without taxing the services provided by the city. 

Please check out I’d love to hear what you think! 

This guest post contributed by:

Margaret Szerlip


Email: Mobile:  617.921.6860

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Author: Margaret Szerlip

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