Requirements of a Legal Basement Apartment in Toronto

Toronto housing prices have been talked about ad nauseam. An effective and popular way to address the constantly rising housing costs in the city is to build a basement apartment. Are you planning to undertake this project? Wondering what are the requirements of a legal basement apartment in Toronto?

Having undertaken this project for countless years, I have first-hand experience with all the Ontario legal basement requirements.

In this article, I’ll share valuable information on what is a legal basement, and highlight all the rules and regulations for legally setting up your basement apartment in Toronto.

Key Takeaways

  • A legal basement, which falls under the Ontario Code Unit, must adhere to the Ontario Building Code Requirements rules and regulations. The legal basement must comply with the Ontario Fire Code, housing and zoning standards by-laws, Electrical Safety Authority regulations, and the Ontario Building Code.
  • Other requirements of a legal basement apartment in Toronto are the residence to be at least five years old, the house to be semi-detached or attached, and no significant alterations to the exterior façade. Moreover, the second suite should be smaller than the main house and property to meet parking requirements.

What Is A Legal Basement

A legal basement is a second dwelling unit that complies with the Ontario Building Code for Second Units, local municipal zoning by-laws, and The Ontario Fire Code.

The code addresses the minimum requirements for an extra dwelling space regardless of its location within your home.

The requirements only apply to units in houses older than five years. If yours is ‘’newer’’, it must comply with the new Ontario Building Code. For such, I advise you to contact professionals such as planning officials, architects, or any other relevant one in the building industry for more guidance on how to go about it.

Legal basement apartment
Legal basement apartment

How To Get The Right Permits

As I have already pointed out, you’ll need at least a building permit from the municipality to develop a legal basement apartment. 

For this to happen, your application form must have the following details:

  1. A site plan with the unit’s drawings and your home’s address. The drawings must show the basement suite entrance location, parking spaces, and the main building.
  2. The basement suite’s floor plan indicates plumbing fixtures, ceiling heights, and all dimensions.
  3. Your home’s exterior photographs.
  4. Fire separations between units.
  5. Elevation drawings if you intend to alter your home’s outside.
  6. Engineer-stamped drawings, that is, if you plan to alter your home’s structure.

From my experience, based on the scope and size of the project, obtaining additional permits for electrical work, gas, fire, plumbing, and heating might be necessary.

Before constructing a legal basement apartment, ensure you meet the zoning criteria of your municipality. It determines whether you can legally convert your basement into a second suite.

Depending on the location of your home, the city might prevent you from operating a basement apartment even in the first place.

Requirements Of A Legal Basement Apartment In Toronto

Toronto has the most significant prevalence of secondary units in the country. Basement apartments are present in almost one out of six homes in Toronto (1).

These units are more prevalent than alternatives such as second-floor suits and laneway homes. One of the reasons for their popularity is the city encouraging their development to counter steep home prices and address rental shortages.

Despite their rewarding income potential, constructing and renting out your basement is not something you can undertake on a whim. There’s a set of rules and regulations you need to meet.

RentalCost in Toronto Per Month
Rental Apartment$2,100 - $3,350
RV$3,300 - $10,500
Vacation Rental$1,320 - $5,340
Corporate Housing$2,000 - $4,500
Rental Homes$3695 - $5555

I’ll classify the Ontario legal basement requirements into different categories:

  • Main building requirements
  • Heating and cooling requirements
  • Fire safety requirements
  • Plumbing requirements
  • Window requirements
  • Electrical requirements
  • Exit requirements

Now, let me expound on all the legal apartment requirements in Toronto.

Main Building Requirements

The Ontario Building Code dictates how you should handle the construction of a legal second suite in Toronto (2). 

A building’s general size depends on the number of its bed chambers. Restrictions of a bachelor unit constitute a reduction of the space to only 145 sq. ft.

The following are the requirements for specific rooms of a second dwelling unit:

  • Dining room – within 75 sq. ft.
  • One bedroom and a kitchen – within 40 sq. ft.
  • Two bedrooms and a kitchen – within 40 sq. ft.
  • Main bedroom without additional closets – within 105 sq. ft.
  • Main bedroom with closets – within 95 sq. ft.

You need adequate space for washrooms and everything therein, such as sinks.

Other notable requirements include:

  1. Have a minimum ceiling height of 6’5″ and continuous.
  2.  Doors must be metal or solid wood, featuring a minimum thickness of 1.75″.
  3. Interior doors feature a half-inch gap at the base for adequate air movement in the unit.
  4. Exterior doors to be not less than 32″ x 78.”
  5. Bathrooms must have fans or windows.
  6. The secondary suite has a functioning stove and refrigerator—cupboards with a capacity of not less than four cubic feet multiplied by the number of dwellers.

Also read: Condo Renovation in Toronto

Heating And Cooling Requirements

A legal basement apartment in Toronto must utilize the central unit (UL268A) items. They must share the ducts, furnace, etc., with the second dwelling unit.

For safety purposes, install ducts at your furnace. They’ll come in handy in emergencies.

Fire Safety Requirements

The Fire Code covers fire safety, including fire separation between units, smoke alarms, and fire escape exits. Your municipality might deem it necessary to have a Fire Prevention Officer over for an inspection and issuance of a safety certificate.

Recently, the city authorized newer legal basements to have roughly 45 minutes of “fire separation” in terms of the central unit. The older basements (5 years and older) must adhere to the guidelines of having 45 minutes from the central unit.

Your unit’s issued separation has to comply with the distance between ceilings or wall separation.

Most modern houses feature interconnected smoke alarms, meaning there’s a significant reduction in separation to only 15 minutes.

Pro Tip: Smoke alarms must be audible even when you shut the bedroom doors. Carbon monoxide detectors are necessary if your house has an attached garage or fuel-fired appliance.

There are prerequisites of sanitary and water requirements for every legal basement. Water might feature variations from hot to cold.

You must facilitate a different water shut-off-off with the backwater preventer valve. By installing this, we ensured proper plumbing functionality and prevented any potential flooding or backups in the basement apartment.

Ensure your bathroom has access to functional restrooms and sinks.

The kitchen must have a kitchen sink.

Bathroom in a legal basement apartment
Bathroom in a legal basement apartment

 

Window Requirements

Your basement unit’s size will determine how you set up the windows. Windows must fulfill approximately 5% of the dining and living room’s surface area.

Alternatively, they can be sufficiently 2.5% of the bedroom’s surface area.

The minimum measurement for a window is 18″ with an opening of 600 sq. in — all windows are to be within 3′ off the ground.

An egress window might be necessary in basement units that contain a bedroom. The exception to this rule is for walk-out basement conditions with direct access to the exterior.

Pro Tip: A window well needs to extend 3′ for an adult to crawl out seamlessly.

Window in a Legal Basement Apartment
Window in a legal basement apartment

Electrical Requirements

The Electrical Safety Authority is the department responsible for enforcing the electrical code. They send licensed ESA technicians to ensure your unit meets all the electrical requirements.

After inspecting and establishing that you meet the code, they’ll give you a certificate or put a sticker in the unit’s ‘main breaker panel.’

Your current electrical service must handle the additional load the new basement apartment will generate. The licensed ESA professional will determine whether the current configuration is enough.

If it’s insufficient, he can recommend adding an electrical panel. Ours advised we also add an electrical meter.

Ensure you get an electrical permit before undertaking electrical work on the property.

Another mandated electrical requirement is a ‘light switch’ in the room.

I have to belabor the point of inspection. Having an electrician conduct an electrical inspection before your tenant moves in is paramount.

Ensure you fix any issues before renting out the unit. Retain the compliance letter after complete review, which you’ll present to your municipality’s chief fire official upon request.

Exit Requirements

In case you connect your second dwelling unit to the central unit regarding fire safety, there’s no problem sharing a standard exit.

Another requirement for a legal basement is to have a ‘second means of escape.’

What Things Are Not Allowed In A Legal Basement Apartment?

The things not allowed in a legal basement apartment are precisely the opposite of what I’ve shared this far. Ensure you follow everything I’ve highlighted in the letter.

In addition to that, I have to mention the following aren’t allowed:

  • Exposed joists and suspended (T-bar) ceilings.
  • Failing to plaster and dry-wall the furnace room ceiling.
  • Failing to ground electrical plugs and GFCI outlets
  • Improper fire alarms

My Experience With The Requirements of a Legal Basement Apartment in Toronto

My family has been in the construction and renovation business for years. Because of this, I can confidently state that I’m familiar with all the city’s rules and regulations concerning this type of project. 

I suggest that you take your time to understand and familiarize yourself with the legal requirements for basement apartments in our wonderful city.

Toronto has some clear rules when it comes to basement apartments. They want to make sure everyone is safe and comfortable. 

It’s all about ensuring enough space, proper exits, and the right amenities.

From my experience, you need to confirm zoning regulations, to ensure your property is in an area where basement apartments are allowed. This is important because only some parts of the city give the thumbs up for these spaces.

After that, familiarize yourself with the building codes. These are like rules that ensure everything is up to snuff. It covers stuff like ceiling height, windows, and making sure there’s a separate entrance.

Another area I like my clients to understand is fire safety. The authorities want everyone to be safe in case of an emergency. Often, my team and I install smoke detectors and even put in a fire escape window, just in case.

Permits are a big part of the process, too. Everything in the city has to be done by the book. 

Getting the proper permits and being patient while waiting for approvals proves your commitment to following the rules and creating a great space.

The project can take several weeks from idea conception, working through all the requirements, getting approvals, and construction to completion and inspection. 

I’d suggest not rushing everything and taking your sweet time.

In terms of cost, there’s no one rule for all basement apartment projects. Just like with other projects, the construction or renovation cost is relative when it comes to basement apartments.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s The Fine To Operate An Illegal Basement Apartment In Toronto?

The fine for operating an illegal basement apartment in Toronto attracts fines of up to $ 50,000 for corporations and $25,000 for individuals.
The relevant authority might allow you to bring your unit up to code and apply for a permit before issuing a fine. However, you can only continue to rent the unit in its current state by taking the necessary steps to legalize it for dwelling.

It Is Legal To Have A Full Kitchen In A Basement Apartment?

It is legal to have a full-fledged kitchen in a basement apartment!
Nonetheless, you must have all the required permits and adhere to the Ontario Fire Code and Ontario Building Code. If you intend to use your basement kitchen for personal use, a municipal official must certify that it meets all the requirements for a second dwelling.
In some municipalities, you could apply for a zoning variance to have the kitchen and maintain it as a single-family home. Note that there is no guarantee that you’ll get approvals.

How Can I Tell If I’m Zoned For A Basement Apartment?

You can know if you’re within a zone for a basement apartment by checking the zoning by-laws of the local municipality.
Before you get started, ensure you comply with the applicable fire codes, ESA regulations, and zoning and housing standards by-laws.

Is it necessary to work with a certified contractor for my basement apartment?

Yes, working with a certified contractor for your basement apartment is necessary.
These professionals make the project swift and easy to navigate. They assist with the different legalities. Whether it is handling the entire project or just part of it, such as kitchen or basement renovation, you can trust the professionals with the job.

Conclusion

Basement apartments are becoming a popular rental option for many Toronto residents. With some prudent planning and creativity, you can undertake this project in your project like I did in mine and enjoy some extra rental income. 

While the construction can be easy and swift, I discovered you must meet all the requirements of a legal basement apartment in Toronto for the city to allow you to undertake the project.

If you have plans to construct a second dwelling unit, ensure you follow all the legal apartment requirements in Toronto I have expounded on in the article.

Have you been part of this project in the recent past? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, or even advice. Please share in the comments section.

Additional Links:

  1.   Housing Market Insight – Secondary Units in Ontario (June 2021) Extracted from https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2022/schl-cmhc/NH12-295-2021-6-eng.pdf
  2.   Ontario’s Building Code Extracted from https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontarios-building-code