Be­ware the pit­falls of a granny suite

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - MIKE HOLMES

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.

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