What It Takes To Legalize Your Secondary Suite

September 10, 2018

September 10, 2018

Secondary suites are a great way to add to the household income or help pay for a family’s house mortgages. They are also quite affordable which make them great for tenants sourcing out affordable apartments. These self-contained units have living and sleeping quarters and a built-in, bathroom, entrance, and kitchen. It also has access to other facilities outside the unit such as the house’s laundry room and yard.

However, despite rental units being an option for many renters and homeowners, there are legalities that make them less accessible to the population. As more and more regulations with regard to creating and renting out units are put in place, an increasingly pressing question homeowners face is whether their secondary suite is legal or not.

Just last year, Square One Insurance Services Inc. surveyed over 5000 homeowners from Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta on whether rental unit owners had disclosed their home’s secondary suites to the government. It found that 17% of the total detached houses from three of the top five most populated provinces of Canada were illegal.

Ontario, the province where 40% of Canada’s population resides, has the highest percentage of ‘illegal’ detached houses at 21%. On the other hand, British Columbia, the third populous province, sits at second with 15% of owners admitting their units were not listed; while Ontario, the fourth most jam-packed province, completes the list with 14% of its granny flats being operated secretly.

However, Square One reports that actual percentages may be higher than what was published. They believe there may be many more homeowners who are reluctant to reveal the existence of their units. Square One president Daniel Mirkovic says the hesitation may be partly due to homeowners: (1) buying homes with already attached units, (2) not knowing there are municipal laws that govern secondary suites, and (3) fear of penalties and sanctions.

Moreover, the laws surrounding the creation and maintenance of detached homes are exhaustive, stringent, and, some, even outdated. Besides that, many municipalities do not permit secondary suites and, if they do, it is only within selected neighbourhoods. Even if units were legalized, there would still be a number of homeowners who are not financially prepared to upgrade their units to fire and building standards. To them, it is all too costly and complex.

But if the resident remains inclined to legalize their flats then they will have to comply to provincial, territorial, and/or municipal requirements. While varied per city, municipality, or province, some of the more common regulations include zoning restrictions, building code compliance, unit size restrictions, minimum parking requirements, inspection and licensing compliance.

Zoning Restrictions

Recently, municipalities have taken the initiative to alter a few policies as affordable housing becomes an issue. These changes include municipalities easing regulations, increasing the number of these areas, as well as expanding the building types allowed to construct a unit.

Building Code Compliance

The design and construction or upgrade of a secondary suite is governed by Canadian provincial and territorial codes, which regulate the maximum area for specific floors, window dimensions, smoke alarm installation, and ceiling height requirements. Three of the requirements being entrances, fire safety, and height, moisture, and natural light especially for basement apartments.

Usually, provinces and territories conform to the national fire and building codes from the National Model Construction Codes (NBC) with regard to secondary suites. However, provinces may make their own provincial codes based off on the NBC and the National Model Construction Codes. Some of the provinces that have taken to creating their own requirements are Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta.

Unit Size Restrictions

Unit size restrictions are dependent on the individual unit and the municipality guidelines. Most of the time, it does not create much of an issue. However, there are some municipalities that require flats to not be smaller than the main. Otherwise, the municipality would categorize it as an “accessory.”

Minimum Parking Requirements

Most municipalities require parking spaces for tenants of laneway houses. The minimum is at two per house, one for the main family and one for the occupants of the secondary unit. However, these vary substantially on the zone the unit is built.

If a unit were to be built in an area with a well served public transit then parking standards are less rigid. But, some cities like Nanaimo, require a total of three parking spaces off the street – two for the main home and one for the laneway house.


Municipal officials are only allowed to inspect units if it is believed to be threatening the overall health and safety of its occupant, the family, or the community. But, other than that, the power of a municipal official to inspect secondary suites is quite limited and totally dependent on legislation. The people with the most authority to conduct inspections are, generally speaking, fire officials.

Licensing Compliance

Licensing is often a way for municipalities to regulate secondary suites and ensure its residents have decent and safe housing.