January 29, 2005
Basement suites must meet requirements
There are health, fire and building code standards
Thousands fail to comply with regulations
The recent death of a single mother in a Toronto basement apartment fire is
a reminder tragic fires can and do occur in every type of dwelling unit.
For landlords everywhere, it should underline the importance of ensuring
that their below-grade residential units comply with all relevant fire code,
building code and zoning bylaw requirements.
Based on my own experience, I believe many of the thousands of basement
apartments in the Toronto area fail to comply with one or more of the
Real estate agents have become very creative in using euphemisms for the
term "illegal basement apartment." Some of the more common expressions are
granny flat, nanny suite, income potential, second suite and, my favourite,
"no warranty as to retrofit status."
Sadly, there appears to be no single source of intelligible, reliable
information on how to create a new basement unit, or to legalize an old one.
I started a search recently with the City of Toronto's Second Suite
information kit (available at the Access Toronto counter in the main lobby
of City Hall, and at the old civic centres in York, East York, Etobicoke,
Scarborough and North York).
It contains a number of pamphlets and booklets about renovating, building
permits, smoke alarms, building costs and responsibilities of landlords. But
there is virtually nothing about the actual physical requirements for
basement units: size, fire protection, zoning, parking, window area, ceiling
height, exit requirements and similar basics.
An online search revealed some very helpful information at
Jim Laughlin, the city's deputy chief building official, advised that if you
have a house less than five years old, forget about a basement apartment.
So-called conversions can only be done in "existing" homes.
Under old legislation introduced by the former NDP government, basement
apartments created or legalized between July 14, 1994 and Nov. 16, 1995 are
grandfathered if and it's a big if they complied with health, fire and
building code standards.
Apartments created during this time don't have to meet current zoning
bylaws, but they do have to meet all the other requirements.
Fast forward to July, 2000, when the Ontario Municipal Board approved a
Toronto bylaw to permit second suites (basement units) across the entire
city. The bylaws of the six former Toronto municipalities have now been
amended to contain harmonized zoning standards.
Laughlin explained that new basement apartments can now be created and old
ones legalized if certain minimum requirements are met:
or semi-detached house must be at least five years old.
The front of
the house cannot be significantly altered to change its appearance from that
of a one-unit building.
walls and a continuous ceiling in the unit must have appropriate fire-rated
drywall separations from the other unit. Exit doors must have a specified
minimum size and thickness.
unit's exits must satisfy the Fire Code (if existing) and the Building Code
(if new). While it is best to have a separate exit for the unit, a shared
exit is acceptable in some circumstances.
basement unit must be smaller than other units in the building.
property standards must be met concerning minimum ceiling heights (6 feet, 5
inches) and minimum window sizes.
units must have operating smoke alarms. A carbon monoxide detector may also
Bathrooms have to have either a window or exhaust fan.
Inspections by the Electrical Safety Authority and the local fire department
are required for existing units.
The fire inspection is often called a fire code retrofit certificate, but
compliance certificates from the fire department and electrical authority
alone do not mean that the apartment is completely legal.
additional parking space is required for the new unit in most areas of the
created units require building permits before construction begins.
Anyone interested in creating or legalizing an existing basement apartment
will have to become familiar with parts 9 or 11 of Ontario's building code,
the fire code, electrical code, the zoning bylaw, property standards bylaw
and the credit limit on a bank loan necessary to fund all of the work.
It may appear to be a regulatory nightmare, but Laughlin says the city will
help guide people through the process.
Anyone building a second suite or buying a house that contains one should
seek the professional help of an experienced architect or contractor
experienced with below-grade living accommodations.
The consequences of doing it wrong can be deadly.