Beware the pitfalls of a granny suite
IN tight times, many homeowners want — or need — an extra source of income. An idea that often gets floated is building and renting out an apartment in the house to help pay the mortgage.
The first problem with this plan is that these apartments are usually illegal, and that’s never a good idea. The second is that, since they aren’t legal, they won’t have permits, and won’t be inspected. And, since a good contractor won’t get involved in building an illegal apartment, they often end up being DIY projects. All of that can add up to disaster.
You would not believe the messes I’ve seen: crude plumbing and dangerous wiring, a structure compromised to make room for new staircases and doorways, HVAC rerouted and split with cold-air returns blocked so it’s no longer effective. And, of course, improper exits and no smoke or carbon-monoxide detectors, the cause of several deaths in illegal basement apartments.
They are known by various names: granny flat, nanny suite, in-law suite, an accessory apartment, and a second suite. But they are all, in essence, the same thing: a separate apartment within a residence intended for a single family.
A lot of existing basement apartments are illegal. You should be careful if you’re buying a house that already has a separate apartment in it — especially if it’s a new house. It might not be advertised, but if you go through a house and see a second stove in the basement, that’s a clue. There should be a separate electrical metre. Have your lawyer check it out. If the area is zoned single-family residential, it’s unlikely to be legal.
But some basement apartments are permitted, depending on the local authority and whether the unit complies with the zoning bylaws.
So how do you know if your apartment is legal? It’s a grey area, and depends on where you live. If the house is older, or the apartment was in existence before building code or local zoning bylaws came into effect, then it might be grandfathered. That means it’s allowed as long as certain standards are met. But what you need to do is make sure the apartment is at least code-compliant for safety and fire.
There’s no single governing authority in most municipalities that determines whether an existing apartment is legal, and what you might need to do to make it legal. You’ll have to speak to your local government and the fire department.
Building code applies only when a house is built. For the most part, it doesn’t apply retroactively. That means new codes that have come into law after your house was built don’t apply, and you don’t have to go in and change things and upgrade. But the fire safety code does apply retroactively: You must update that if you want to rent that apartment. Owners of properties with second suites in them must make sure the units are brought up to fire and safety code compliance. Make no mistake: It’s the homeowner’s legal responsibility, even if the house was purchased with the apartment existing.
The rules that do exist are usually about fire and safety; you need to make sure the tenants are safe.
The unit must comply with Electrical Safety Authority. That means the electrical is safe, and has been inspected and passed by the ESA. It should comply with all zoning bylaws and housing safety standards. Other rules, such as daylight requirements, minimum ceiling height, size of the rental unit relative to the main living space, and available parking, all exist, and you need to check with your local authority.
A self-contained apartment must have a separate entry, either a private entrance or through a common hallway, not through your home. This is to allow for safe egress in case of a fire. If it’s in a basement, that’s even more of a concern. There should also be egress windows, through which people can escape. Other fire safety requirements include: smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors, a solid wood or metal fire-rated door, a fire-resistant rating between the units (5/8-inch drywall allows a 30-min fire rating), and fire dampers in duct work between the basement and upper floor and sprinklers.
You can find out more through your local fire department. In fact, you can have them check out your second suite to see if it’s code-compliant. They’ll provide a fire-code retrofit certificate that you can show your insurance company.
It might seem like a good idea to put in a basement apartment or second suite to help with the house payments, but think twice. If you can’t do it legally, don’t do it at all. You can be heavily fined and your house insurance might be void if something happens and you make a claim.
But, if you’re able to put one into your home — legally — make sure you do it right. Check with your municipal government to find out what you need to do to make it right. Every area of the country is different, but the rules are similar. Do your research, get a permit and hire a pro.
— Canwest News Service
A granny suite can be a one-way ticket to disaster, so approach the idea with caution and an eye to legality.