Do you have a suite tooth?

To some, the idea of renting out a portion of your house leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. To others, paying some of their mortgage each month with someone else’s money is a sweet proposition.

Most secondary suites in Calgary are located in the basement of a regular single-family house. However, there are also garden suites (detached buildings located in the yard of a regular house) and garage suites (suites located above a detached garage, sometimes referred to as laneway houses or carriage houses).

I’m sure many of you have read house listings that use the terms “illegal suite”, “MIL (mother-in-law) suite” , “non-conforming suite”, “nanny suite” or even “summer kitchen”.  These generally refer to the same thing – a basement suite that does not comply with all of the regulations relating to a secondary suite.

The vast majority of suites in Calgary are “illegal” or  “non-conforming” for a variety of reasons. There are WAY more regulations relating to secondary suites than most people realize.

First, your home must be located in an area with the proper zoning (land use district) to allow suites. The areas that currently allow suites are mostly in the inner city but do not include all inner-city communities.

Second, your house must be a single-family, detached house (not a half-duplex or townhome).

Third, your lot must have the minimum required width, depth and total area.

Fourth, you must provide on-site (NOT on-street) parking for your suite as well as 7.5+ square metres (81 square feet) of outdoor amenity space (balcony, patio, etc.).

On top of this, the suite must meet fairly detailed building codes to be considered legal. This includes items such as:

–  width of entrance door

– width of entrance staircases

– size of windows and window wells

– minimum ceiling height 1.95 metres

– fire protection between suites

– independent heating and ventilation systems (i.e. separate furnaces)

– electrical panel accessible by both units with no shared circuits

As you can see, building a legal suite or bringing an existing illegal suite to compliance can be a rigorous and expensive undertaking. So, hundreds of illegal suites continue to operate across the city. They play an important role in the rental market in Calgary, which has seen very low vacancy rates in recent years.

Some city councillors are pushing to have secondary suites legalized in a wide range of areas that don’t currently allow them. However, this will not alleviate the difficulty of complying with all of the building codes.

If the city receives a complaint from anyone about a suite they believe is operating illegally, the city could investigate and shut down the suite.

If you are considering adding a secondary suite to your home, I recommend taking the proper steps to create a legal suite to ensure that your future income is protected. Plus, it gives you a great selling feature when putting your home on the market. Illegal suites can still generate a premium sale price, but some buyers are wary of paying more for a suite that could potentially be shut down at any time.

If you are purchasing a property with an illegal suite, I recommend trying to get the house for the price that it should garner even without a suite. Then, it is up to your risk tolerance whether you would like to rent it out. At least you will not lose if you need to resell the property without a suite.

If you have questions about a specific property, you can always call 311 and talk to the planning department to find out whether a suite is legal. If you have general questions about suites and valuations of homes with suites, please drop me a line!