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Guide

How to know if a secondary suite or basement apartment is legal—and a worthwhile investment

What is required for a legal secondary suite?

In Canada, the provinces and territories set their own building codes and regulations. The specific rules can vary from one province or territory to another, but most have standards and requirements covering things like:

  • Permissible location of the secondary unit
  • Room size, ceiling height and number of windows
  • heating and ventilation
  • Plumbing, electrical and lighting systems
  • Fire protection, including smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Number and location of exits and emergency exits

Although these standards are implemented by the provinces and territories, municipalities enforce zoning and land use ordinances that allow for the construction of secondary suites. This means that secondary suites may be legal in some parts of a province or territory but not others. So if you are buying a home with an annexe or planning to add one to a property, be sure to confirm with your local government what is allowed and required.

Do you need a permit?

When building a second home as part of a family home, one of the most important steps is obtaining the appropriate permits. Permits give you permission to make changes to the property and certify that the work will be carried out safely and according to regulations. It doesn’t matter if you’re not doing major construction work – a permit may be required just to change the use of the building.

Depending on the scope of the work, you may need to apply for permits for various components, including building, plumbing, and electrical.

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What happens if you have an illegal second suite?

You should never build or maintain a two family home without proper permission. Without a permit, you risk a fine, eviction from the tenancy or construction freeze (regardless of whether the demolition work is already underway).

If they are found to be in breach of building codes such as fire codes, it can also result in criminal prosecution and significant fines – even imprisonment. In Ontario, for example, violating the fire code can result in a fine of up to $25,000 and a year in prison. Any income you might get from renters pales in comparison.

If you are planning to buy a property with an ancillary unit, you should still have the unit inspected by the municipality and approved for tenant use. If the unit has not been previously approved and a fire or flood occurs on your property, you could be held responsible for building code violations.

And don’t let a surprise inspection take you by surprise. Remember that anyone can inquire and request an inspection of your second unit. It could be a neighbor or tenant, or even a city official inspecting another unit in the neighborhood. Protect yourself by making sure everything is up to date from day one.

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