Aside from city by-law issues, the number one thing to identify in a home when considering second suites is the height of the basement. This is perhaps the most cost prohibitive item to rectify if it doesn’t meet the requirements.
In Ontario, most municipalities will enforce the building code requirement of 6 feet 5 inches for homes older than 5 years, or 6 feet 11 inches for homes under 5 years old.
Variances are not permitted for building code items, only by-laws. If you got away with under 6 feet 5 inches, it’s because the inspector overlooked it.
But I’d rather make a purchase decision based on what’s allowed, rather than the particular mood of that particular inspector on that particular day.
5 Methods For More Height
So let’s assume you don’t have enough height in the basement. Here are some things you can do to create more height - from the least to the most expensive.
The first 2 items assume you have enough height overall, but the main beam takes several inches off of that. Generally because the beam is in the path of the exit, it can’t be lower than 6 feet 5 inches. These only work with wood beams, which are more common in older homes.
The last 3 items assume that none of the space meets minimum heights.
Keep in mind that all these solutions require an ENGINEERED DESIGN AND PERMITS from the city before they can be done.
1. Cutting beams
Assuming a wood load-bearing beam blocking the doorway is leading to an exit, with floor joists resting on the beam (as with many older homes). Here, it may be possible to cut the beam, place a new section of at the level of the floor joists, and re-support the joists with hangers.
In this scenario, the ends of the beams will now need to be re-supported with adequately sized columns and pad footings underneath.
2. Raising beams
Let’s say you want to do a nice open concept space and you have that pesky beam running down the middle. What do you do when you don’t want to divide the space with walls? There may be a way to raise the entire beam. It’s similar to the method described above, except now you raise the entire beam, with ALL the floor joists butted against the beam with joist hangers.
Of course, the ends of the beams would need to be properly supported as well. This only works when the joists are currently resting on top of the wood beam.
3. Lower basement – Bench Footing
Here’s where the fun begins. Lowering basements may be the only option, and this can be extremely expensive. If done improperly, it can have serious structural implications.
There are 2 methods to lower your basement – creating a bench footing, or underpinning. The former is usually cheaper. However, this method creates an unsightly bench along the perimeter of the foundation, and is more suitable for very large basements at least 1000 square feet and up.
4. Lower basement – Underpinning
The second method, and more popular one, is lowering the basement by underpinning the footing. This allows for more floor space compared to benching, but is much more involved and costly. There can be serious structural implications if not done correctly.
There have been numerous incidents of underpinning contractors cutting corners - resulting in the collapsing of homes. One incident in Toronto has even resulted in a death to a worker. This is something you definitely want to leave to the professionals.
For both methods of lowering, water entry is a serious consideration. If you’re in a higher water table area, you may introduce water into the basement. There may be waterproofing (either interior or exterior) work that needs to be done, and a sump pump will typically need to be installed.
I wrote an article about waterproofing recently – you can read that here at: Waterproofing Your Basement The Right Way
5. Raising the house (and roof!)
We all know about jacked up house prices. What about jacked up houses – literally?
This is not something I’m too familiar with, but have heard home owners doing it to get extra height without having to lower the basement (possibly because there was risk in disturbing the foundation).
This is something not easy, nor cheap, to do. But with prices where they are in the GTA, unconventional solutions may still be economically feasible.
In this scenario, they disconnect the house at the sill plate attached to the top of the foundation wall and lift it up to a suitable height. This is probably only viable for wood framed structures. Masonry homes may be prohibitively expensive. Additionally, numerous systems of the house would have to be disconnected and reconnected (i.e. gas, ducts, electrical, plumbing, etc).
Not a weekend job that’s for sure!
Don’t Try These At Home!
Of course all of these methods need proper engineering and city approval before they can be attempted. You should not try these things with any contractor who is willing to do it without permits! Period.
Other Tips and Tricks
The following are some additional small solutions that may alleviate minor height issues.
1. Resizing ducts
Some ducts may be resized to be wider and shorter (and still provide adequate air flow) Often they hang a couple inches below the joists, so you may be lift them a bit. Other times, there may be an inch or 2 of strapping that can be made smaller.
2. Relocating ducts
If there’s nothing you can do about the size of the ducts, it may be possible to relocate them to the perimeter of the house, so that they’re not in the way of an exit.
3. Creating walls
Lower portions of beams and ducts along the center of the house can be incorporated into partition walls, so as not to be noticeably lower.
4. No strapping
Depending on fire and sound rating requirements, some areas may be okay to have drywall attached directly the joists without strapping, saving you about an inch.
What You Shouldn’t Do.
Don’t attempt the following to get more ceiling height. You’re going to mess up your house and REALLY pay the price later on.
1. DO NOT notch any floor joists or beams to get some additional height
2. Don’t get rid of your basement slab in order to gain 3 inches. Even though the basement slab is poured at the end of the construction phase, it still provides lateral support to the structure. Getting rid of it without proper benching or underpinning of the foundation is a recipe for disaster.
That’s it! This was just an introduction to the topic. I encourage you to continue learning more on the subject if you need more height in your basement – and who doesn’t?
Thanks for reading!