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Secondary Suites and Basement Apartments: Is Yours Legal?

Rosario Ungaro - Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In our Blog Post, “12 Ways to Steer Clear of a Bad Contractor”, we wrote about a new client that came to us because her construction project had been suspended by the Building Inspector because the contractor she hired had failed to get the appropriate building permits. In this post—more of a curated piece than original work as we wanted to make sure we got it as accurate as possible—we’re going to discuss the ramifications of having, or planning to have, a secondary unit in your home—also known as a secondary suite, basement apartment, second unit, accessory apartment, in-law apartment, etc.—and why paying strict attention to adhering to all legal building and zoning requirements is so important.

basement apartmentBy the end of this post we hope that you will also come to the conclusion that hiring a Professional Contractor, familiar with obtaining building permits and adhering to the myriad of code requirements is especially important.

Secondary units—a definition:
[Secondary units are defined as] self-contained residential units with kitchen and bathroom facilities… Although second suites often take the form of basement apartments, they may occupy an upper floor, or the back part of a house. For a second suite to qualify as an authorized unit, it must meet:
  • residential zoning requirements
  • property standards
  • occupancy standards
  • health and safety requirements
  • fire and electrical codes.

Do I need a building permit?  

"A building permit may be required to establish a second unit depending on whether alterations to the house are needed. As such, homeowners considering establishing a second unit should contact their municipality prior to doing so."


Of course, another key factor to consider is whether you are meeting all fire code requirements.

Fire Code Requirements

Is your existing unit legal?

Having an authorized [emphasis added] second suite ensures that your home meets basic health and safety principles that protect you and your tenant. If an existing second suite does not fit the regulations, it would be considered an unauthorized unit. The onus is on you to ensure that your second suite meets established standards. If a fire or flood occurred, you could be held responsible. [emphasis added] The best way to establish a positive working relationship with city services would be to request an inspection yourself. Remember, someone else can also request an inspection of your second suite [emphasis added]. For example, your tenant or a neighbour might ask a city official about the safety or maintenance of your second suite; the city would then respond to this complaint. Sometimes, properties containing a second suite are found during a routine neighbourhood inspection by a city official, and the city must follow up on this discovery. When upgrading an existing unit, you should first approach Municipal Licensing and Standards, a division of the Urban Development Services Department of the City of Toronto.

Source: Second Suites: An Information Guide for Homeowners (Note: This pamphlet also has a section on how to hire a contractor. Instead of paraphrasing it for you, in the interests of propriety and transparency we recommend that you read it directly.)

I hope that this short piece has alerted you to some of the complexities involved in having or adding a second unit in your home. Done correctly it can be a great way to earn some extra money or house a family member. Done incorrectly it can lead to a variety of problems ranging from violating the building code to potential legal issues should someone get hurt due to an improperly constructed unit. The additional sources at the bottom will give you some additional information.

That's all for now, until next time, we'll keep Building it Right!

E.& O.E. Although we have made every attempt to be accurate, information contained herein is for general discussion only and is meant to outline some of the types of issues you need to think about should you have or are thinking of having a second unit in your home. It is not intended to replace the actual legislation and legal documentation and due diligence should be done by the homeowner with the appropriate government agencies and the respective laws, zoning, and documentation.

Charts have been extracted from the pamphlet: Second Suites: An Information Guide for Homeowners located at

Additional Sources and Resources: 
Second Suites: An Information Guide for Homeowners

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A word from Rosario…

Our Blog is about sharing some of what we have learned along the way. (Many contractors even call us for ideas or advice.) We hope it is informative and shows our commitment to continuous learning—something we do so we can bring the very latest and best to our customers. 

You've probably heard the phrase: 

"Some people have twenty-five years of experience. Others have one year of experience, twenty-five times over." 

If a contractor doesn't stay up-to-date on the latest building codes, trends, styles, tools, materials, and products, they'll soon find themselves in the latter category. We work hard to make sure that we are not. We regularly talk with our suppliers, go to industry trade shows, and share information and ideas with our peers to make sure that we stay on top of our game and can continue to bring you the very best in building craftsmanship and knowledge.

I welcome the opportunity to chat with you about your next building project.


Rosario Ungaro
Benchmark Building Services Inc.


Relax… we'll build it right!