Thinking of buying a home with illegal in-law unit -- what are the risks?

The risks of buying a property that may not be up to code.

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Question

My wife and I are considering making an offer on a house with an “illegal in-law unit.” The extra space would be perfect for housing our frequent out-of-town visitors, but I am a little concerned that it is listed as “illegal.” What does this mean? Should we go forward with our offer?

Answer

You are right to be hesitant about buying this property. Property listed as “illegal” was constructed without the required construction permits. Buying such a property is a risk that can lead to many headaches.

The good news is that you were informed of the issue prior to purchasing the property. This gives you the chance to carefully consider your options.

Here are some of the issues that arise with “illegal” construction:

  • Inferior and/or unsafe construction. A permit is required to ensure safe and quality construction. Without a permit, there is no guarantee that the in-law unit was constructed well.
  • Bringing it up to code. If the city (or governing municipality) finds out about the illegal unit, it will require you, as the new owner, to bring it up to current code and obtain the required permits. The city does not care that you weren’t responsible for the original construction. Obtaining a permit after construction has been completed can be a lengthy and costly process. See Discovering Unpermitted Construction When Selling Your Home for more information.
  • Financing problems. Your financial institution may not be willing to extend financing on a house that includes unpermitted construction.
  • Insurance issues. If there is a fire or other incident in the in-law unit for which you may pursue an insurance claim, your insurance company may deny coverage. You likely will not have trouble initially obtaining the policy, but beware of the small print that excludes coverage for construction not built up to code or built with inferior construction.
  • Retroactive taxes. If the taxing authority has not been assessing real estate tax on your in-law unit, you may be responsible for paying back taxes.
  • Disclosure to buyers. When you eventually sell the property, you will be required, by law, to disclose the unpermitted construction to any potential buyers. This will make it harder for you to sell the property.

You may decide that purchasing a house with unpermitted construction is not worth the risk. One option you have is to walk away. Another option is to negotiate to have the seller obtain required permits prior to sale. This may be a good solution if you are willing to be flexible with the closing date (the permitting process can be lengthy and unpredictable).

If you do choose to go forward with the purchase, consider the terms of your offer carefully. The property may well be worth less than the listing price. For example, the market value of a two-bedroom house with an illegal in-law unit is actually closer to that of a two-bedroom house without the extra unit.

by: Allison Nash

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