Make your home pay

Build a self-contained suite in your home for added income

By Jay Somerset

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Code of conduct

Renovating an existing auxiliary apartment and constructing a new one are two very different projects. If you want to transform an area of your home into a separate dwelling, then the process is straightforward. Draw up project plans and submit them to the local building department; once approved, build according to the provincial building code and make it legal with a final project inspection. “Creating a new dwelling–installing new windows, building an addition, a new bathroom, new plumbing-requires a permit,” says Laughlin.

Many people make upgrades but don’t get work like electrical upgrades inspected. “The problem is many homeowners believe that making internal changes is their right, so why would a permit be required? Small maintenance such as new drywall or changing plumbing fixtures don’t require permits, but a new dwelling is much more complex because there are requirements for fire separation, exits, ventilation and window size,” says Laughlin.

Homeowners renovating an existing suite (one that’s been used as an apartment since before 1995) can legalize it by having the work inspected by a fire code inspector. “It’s not that hard to meet the code,” says Laughlin. “If there are problems, the inspector will tell you how to meet the requirements–you need another door, drywall, etc.–so that the apartment is safe.”

Common problems of existing units include: ceilings that are too low because the homeowner didn’t lower the floor, exit routes that are insufficient or blocked, smoke alarms that don’t work properly or the apartment isn’t sealed off properly with fire-rated drywall.

“We look at four main things: containment, egress, fire alarms and detection, and suppression,” says fire code specialist Paul Schuster, whose Toronto-based company, The Fire Guy, helps homeowners meet retrofit requirements. “Containment addresses the construction materials that separate the dwelling unit from the rest of the house. If you have a basement apartment, the ceiling must be made with something that separates it from the upstairs. Gypsum board is the most common–it has a fire separation of 30 minutes–but plasterboard can be used as well.” Putting an apartment above the garage, adds Schuster, requires even more fire protection, an hour’s worth, enough so that carbon monoxide can’t seep through.

Another part of containment is the doors. If you have a shared side entrance with doors to two separate apartments, those two doors must have a minimum of 20-minute fire protection. Schuster recommends hard-wired smoke-alarm systems over battery-powered ones: “If there’s a shared exit, the hard-wired detector interconnects the two dwellings, so both occupants hear it go off. Indeed, some codes require them.

“If you don’t comply with the code, you could face serious fines,” adds Schuster. “The fire department prosecutes right off the bat with penalties up to $25,000 per offence, and chances are you would have more than one offence. The court system is not lenient in these cases. And if you have a fire and the fire department does an audit and it’s evident that your apartment wasn’t up to code, your insurance company may not cover you for the damage because you broke your agreement. A lot of insurance companies want proof that you had your dwelling inspected by the fire and electrical inspectors.”

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