Get proof of Basement Suite’s legality before buying

From: The Toronto Star, Saturday May 30, 1998
by Alan Silverstein

In 1994, the NDP attempted to legalize basement apartments and other accessory residential uses. Four years later, thousands of units still don't meet the necessary standards to be legal.

In determining what is a legal basement apartment in Ontario today, confusion reigns supreme.

For years basement apartments proliferated, despite being illegal in most areas. Fire officials were concerned about residents' safety, since many units were viewed as firetraps.

Rather than clamp down on their existence, the NDP opted to legalize them. A series of tragic fires in early 1994 strengthened the government's resolve to legalize basement apartments and impose fire safety standards. The new law on apartments in houses took effect on July 14, 1994.

Many people thought all existing basement apartments were suddenly legalized. Not so. Though poorly publicized owners had two years (until July 14, 1996) to comply with the retrofit provisions of the Fire Code, discussed below.

While apartments in homes were now allowed, they also had to satisfy the Fire Code to be fully legal. Unless both conditions - permitted use and compliance with the fire code - were met, a basement apartment would be illegal come July 14, 1996.

June 1995. New government, new philosophy. On Nov. 16, 1995, the Tory government voiced its displeasure with the NDP law by introducing legislation to repeal it (on May 22, 1996, it became law).


One problem. Basement apartments had become a permitted use in July, 1994. Banning them would strip homeowners of that status. So the Tories had to grandfather (or preserve) those two-unit houses made a permitted use by the NDP, and which were used or occupied that way on the magic date of Nov. 16, 1995.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing's Apartments in Houses Guide Update interprets the expression used or occupied very broadly, to mean houses where the physical structure consisted of two residential units on the magic date.

The presence of the second unit on Nov. 16, 1995 means that the house will always be permitted to have two units - even if one or both units were vacant on the magic date, or in the future.

Establishing that a basement apartment was a permitted use as of the magic date is only half the battle. Even a grandfather home containing two existing dwelling units had to comply with the Fire Code on July 14, 1996! In other words, even though basement apartments may be permitted in terms of zoning, they also must fully comply with the Fire Code to be 100 per cent legal today.

What are those four fire safety standards? Fire separation between dwelling units; means of escape; fire alarms and detection; and safe electrical wiring. The penalty for non-compliance with these very technical standards is steep: a fine of up to $25,000, up to a year in jail, or both. Homeowners could also face a civil action (with possible denial of insurance coverage) if a tenant dies or is seriously injured in a fire in a basement apartment that violated the Fire Code.

Two separate inspections and clearance certificates are needed to 'legalize' basement apartments, from the local fire department and Ontario Hydro. Preliminary inspections must often be conducted, to indicate the work needed to upgrade the property, followed by final inspections. The more extensive the deficiencies, the more likely a building permit will be needed.

To avoid inheriting the seller's problems, buyers of homes with basement apartments must learn whether and how it is a permitted use, and if it has been properly inspected and approved, before signing any contract.

A clause should then appear in the offer, forcing the vendor to deliver both clearance certificates on closing, plus evidence of permitted use status. Agents should also warn clients about the hazards of buying homes with uncertified basement apartments. Simply whitewashing the issue, with no vendor representation in the offer about compliance with the Fire Code retrofit provisions, is a cop-out.

15 comments on “Get proof of Basement Suite’s legality before buying

  1. My wife and I moved in to an above ground basement apartment last september in Vaughan. The unit has no stove, the kitchen counters and sink and fridge sit too low which is a problem for us since we both have lower back issues, the water pressure feels more like getting rained on and the landlord’s 5yr old son, whom we were told makes little to no noise, runs all day long which produces a constant thumping sound on the floors and through to our apartment. Also there is no actual separate entrance to the unit. Would any of these issues give us a legal stance to negotiate when it comes time to resign the lease?

  2. I had no idea my basement was not legal. Its fully finished and I Rented it. I give tenants rent reciepts every year. How do i get it retrofitted without kicking out tenants? The home inspectore was a friend of the realestate agent.

  3. How do I know the person I am renting the basement apartment is the owner of the house. Do I have the right to ask for the ownership before I pay the rent and also sign the lease.

    1. Hi Sammy, Before you sign the lease you should ask any question that you would like an answer to. You need to know that the people you are handing over money to monthly are the correct people.

  4. My daughter just moved into a basement apartment in Mississauga. The only exit for her is through an automatic garage door. I am concerned about the safety. Fire, and electrical my stop this door from opening and it can’t be done manually if the electrical is out. Is this legal?

  5. Hi all,
    I would like to understand from all of you people who all of a sudden get concerned about whether the apartment that you are renting is upto standard or not…don’t you inspect these homes before moving in? And once you have moved in and are not satisfied…why is it
    so hard for you to simply move out ?
    It’s a better option than questioning if you are entitiled to rent abatment etc…I think you agreed to live in a place for x amount of money, hold up your end of the deal…or simply leave!

  6. I’m curious if my basement apartment is legal. I have read that the ceiling height needs to be at least 6’5, my apartment is that height in areas but in roughly 50% of the apartment there is a bulkhead and it’s 5’10 in many areas. Another concern is my main entry/exit is in the kitchen right beside the stove. There is a trap door in the laudry area but I have never opened it and noone has ever told me it was my emergency exit. I understand the door needs to also be atleast 32″x78″ which it also is not.

    is there anything that can be done about this?


  7. i am living in an apartment that i don’t think is up to code and i have a feeling that i am paying a lot of money for just a blank room. i also have a stove unit that has an attached sink and fridge but it hasn’t worked properly for over a year. who can i contact to get someone over to this apartment to assess it and tell me if it is an legal suite or not?

  8. So if a suite does not have permits, what happens if there is a fire or other incident? Does house insurance cover the damage? What are the liability issues on the home insurance and contents policy? Will the insurer pay if there are no approved permits for the suite?

  9. I rented a basment apartment in Scarborough in 2008. It was an empty 2 room (not including bathroom) unite. The landlord had put in a stove, fridge, and sink in the kitchen. He also had put in a toilet, sink, and stand up shower in the bathroom. While doing all of this I don’t remember seeing a permit posted up at anytime. There is also a one bedroom unit in the basement that is seperate from mine. Both units share one entrance. How cn I find out if this is infact a legal unit that I have been paying rent for for the past 2 years? If this is illegal am I entitled to get some or all of my money back?

  10. My niece just rented a basement apartment in Toronto. The windows have bars on them. Is this legal for a “legal” basement apartment? My sister raised her concerns yesterday to the landlord, who she says is showing up today to “saw the bars off”. This is raising major red flags for me. Who can we contact to ensure this is a legal basement apartment? Are bars supposed to be on the windows of a legal basement apartment in the first place? Can anyone help provide info?

    1. Hi Jacquline, Many people in the city put bars on the lower level of homes to prevent any intrusions etc. as it easier entrance. It can happen in the best of neighbourhoods. Usually there is a key etc to unlock them from the inside, or a way to remove from inside. It is a decision on whether you want to keep them as it makes exiting difficult in an emergency situation.
      We cannot comment on the legality of the suite, as there are many factors for that. The bulk of basement apartments in the city are illegal based on the guidelines fyi.
      The Julie Kinnear Team

  11. Yes the city/ town where it is located will have it on file. The Fire Department and Electrical standards (building code division, etc.) will have it on file as well after it has passed the inspections. The apartment will be registered as legal (non-compliant) even if it has passed both inspections if the zoning does not allow for basement apartments. That means it is legal because it grandfathered, but the zoning prevents it from being compliant.

  12. How can I find out if the current home I am renting has a legal appt? Is there a registration listing that I can view? City of Brampton.


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