Taking on any large scale renovation project can be overwhelming. Before you even get into the actual construction work (which is quite intimidating itself), there may be an equally resource intensive process to simply get permission to do the work.
This approval process involves completing things “by right”, which means meeting all local bylaws. And if you can't meet them, you may need to apply for variances to achieve your objective. This is where an unhappy neighbor might get involved.
In case you don’t know, a variance is essentially asking the city for permission to pardon or tweak a by-law violation. This is done through a formal application process, and getting a hearing date with the Committee of Adjustments. This process often adds time and money. As mentioned, this also gives your neighbors an opportunity to voice their opinion (which you want to avoid).
After passing the gauntlet of complying or obtaining a variance, you have to produce a plan that meets provincial codes, such as building, fire and electrical.
Although the process is similar for any large construction project, our focus here is on converting a property to contain a legal second suite. We’ll discuss the main by-law requirements for second suites, how to identify which ones apply to your property, and tools to maximize your chances of success.
What Are Some Of The By-Laws?
Because of the sweeping mandate provincially (Bill 140: Strong Communities Through Affordable Housing Act), most cities have set policies to allow second suites. Assuming your property is in a proper location, here are the typical by-law issues you may see.
Parking – This is the most common and difficult one to comply with, especially if that city doesn’t allow tandem parking (1 car in front of the other). You need to know the nuances here before presuming compliance. I’ve had clients who bought their property because it “looks like” it has adequate parking. Unfortunately in the world of city by-laws, “looks like” doesn’t cut it. They have set dimensions down to the inch. I wrote an entirely separate article about this issue - How To Ensure Adequate Parking For Your Second Suite
Lot sizes – Some cities will have a minimum lot size requirement before allowing second suites. This is a measure to control the density in a particular neighborhood.
Unit sizes – More common than lot sizes requirements are unit size requirements. Sometimes the restrictions will be a specific number (eg. maximum of 650 SF or minimum of 700 SF), or it may be a portion of the entire house (eg. 40% of the gross floor area or up to 50%), or a combination of both. These are dependent on what that city determines to be reasonable to strike a balance between creating density, and keeping existing residents happy.
Changes to façade – You probably can’t change the look of the house from the street. Their goal is to add more housing units without changing the character of the neighborhoods. This means you can’t add an extra front door or front basement walkout to lead in. Any new entrances would have to be created at the side or rear of the home.
Age of home – Some cities will say your home needs to be 5 years old before you can add in an accessory suite. This seems like an arbitrary number, but it may have to do with coinciding with the building code's relaxing of the rules for renovations of homes older than 5 years.
Type of home – Most cities will allow only detached or semi-detached homes to have second suites. Some will allow townhouses (rowhouses) as well, while other may only allow townhouses depending on particular circumstances (eg. if they are already in highly dense neighborhoods).
Does Your Property Comply?
Now that you know what the most common by-law requirements are, how do you find out if your property complies?
Online Resources – Compared to just a few years ago, city websites have become much greater resources for information with interactive features. For example, many have a mapping system that allow you to enter the address, and then outline what your options are for that particular house.
Here’s an interactive zoning map for Toronto:
Even if they don’t have a fancy mapping tool, often there will be a downloadable zoning by-law PDF. This document should have a map of the entire city, and show you what the zoning allows.
Some cities also have 1 or 2 page “cheat sheets” that outline the code requirements and their bylaws for second suites. Try googling the city name plus. "second suite" or "secondary suite" or "accessory apartment", etc.
Phone or Visit the City’s Building Department - It might seem intimidating to speak directly to the cities, but you’ll find that they’re just regular folks doing a job. Understand that they are very process oriented, so do your own homework first.
Always be patient, cordial and appreciative of the help they provide to you. After all, your goal is build a relationship with the staff, because your long term goal may be to purchase or build many properties in the city, and you may need to continually work with them.
It’s worth noting that many homeowners and contractors that approach the city are uninformed and impatient. If you set yourself apart by being professional and knowledgeable, they will definitely be more willing to help. Tell them what your intentions are, and often they will be helpful and offer you a solution.
TIP #1 (give them something to fall back on): Humans naturally want to avoid confrontation and would rather be helpful than difficult if possible. That’s no different with city staff, but they won’t want to be liable for something that can get them in hot water or even fired if they incorrectly approve something. If there’s something that might be interpreted a different way, you may be able to explain it that way to the them, and often they will reconsider and see it your way. This has often happened when I work with the city for both by-law and code items. If something ever came back to “bite them”, they may use the same reasoning regarding interpretation.
TIP #2 – (for anonymity): If you want to get info on your property, but don’t want to reveal your address, here’s a little trick. Say that you’re looking to purchase a house on this street, and you wanted general information for the area.
If you feel comfortable sharing the address, it will be easier for them to explain a specific solution.
Ensure You Have Plan B
After going through the legwork described above, you should have a good idea whether your property complies, but it’s always worth having a backup plan (or plans) in case you cannot do a conversion because of an unforeseen circumstance.
Can the property still function well as a single family home? Can you sell it as-is or with cosmetic renovations for a profit? Are there other types of renovations that can increase its value (eg. rear or 2nd floor addition?)
Because asking the city for a variance takes so much time, a strategy many homeowners and investors use is to provide the initial design to meet the by-laws and codes, and then obtain the building permit first. After getting the permit, they start renovation work, and then re-apply in order to get a variance.
Pushing For Changes
Ultimately I feel it’s worth pushing for changes and going beyond the existing by-laws in order to create better, denser and more vibrant cities. If we simply followed the existing rules and did everything by-right, the pace of change will be extremely slow, and not help to resolve our housing crises.
So I do encourage, within reason to take some risk and push for change if the chance of success is high. It’s never a slam dunk but worth giving it a shot. My metric is that if I feel there is a greater than 75% chance of success, I will go for it. But at the same time, I will have a Plan B that will still work in case I don’t get the outcome I’m looking for.
If you're new to the process, it's worth getting the help of a knowledgeable urban designer, architect, designer or engineer.
Now it’s up to you to help make those changes!
And when working with the city, remember to always stay cool as a cucumber.
Thanks for reading! Have you ever had difficulty with a by-law? Please share it in the comments section below.