250.388.5882 Contact

Suite-ing A Home In Victoria

Posted by on

As beautiful and attractive as Victoria BC is as a city, it's become notorious for its low vacancy rate and competitive housing market — a natural result when everyone wants to live here! Various steps have been taken by the municipalities that make up Greater Victoria to make housing more available, but homeowners are chipping in as well with a growing trend: secondary suites.

Often known as "in-law suites" or "granny suites", the name alone hints at how long secondary suites have been used to house family members in an independent space that's still close at hand. A simple one-bedroom suite can be comfortable and private accommodation for teenagers, university students, or seniors. Aside from benefiting family, secondary suites can provide additional income in the form of rentals, or be converted into a home office or business.

This trend extends beyond Victoria: Canada's multigenerational households have been steadily rising since 2001, and in 2016, 6.3% of the country's total population lived in multigenerational homes. That importance has been reflected in the real estate market, where adding a legal suite to a property can result in a huge jump in your home's value.

So how do you know if adding a suite to your property is the right move, and how do you get started?

Legal Suites vs "Illegal" Suites

The first thing to be aware of is whether your home is capable of supporting a legal suite. In order to be legal, a suite (and the property it's on) must:

  • Follow all municipal bylaws,

  • meet all building code requirements,

  • have all the necessary permits,

  • undergo an official inspection, and

  • be issued an Occupancy Permit by the city.

These requirements ensure that the suite is safe and comfortable to live in, and fits in with city development plans.

"Illegal" suites don't adhere to one or more of those restrictions. Violations can range from minor issues such as a slightly-too-low ceiling to big issues such as major fire safety risks. While suites with minor violations can't legally be rented out, they are (usually) technically legal to have in your home for you and your family's own personal use. ("In-law suites" most often refers to these kinds of "illegal" suites.)

Illegal suites with bigger health or safety violations are a different matter. They can result in fines, and the homeowner being forced to either bring the suite up to code or remove it entirely. Further legal action can sometimes be taken by the suite tenants or government depending on the circumstances, which can end pretty badly for some would-be landlords.

For these reasons it's often best to put in the effort of legalizing a suite, especially if you plan to rent it in the future. Legal suites reduce your risk, increase your home's value more reliably, keep tenants happier, and are a bigger return on your investment.

What Kind of Home Is Best For Adding A Suite?

While it may be your remodelling dream, not all homes are created equal when it comes to adding a suite. In order to be legal, a suite must follow the BC Building Code (as well as any local bylaws, which we'll cover in a minute). The code's requirements for suites can help you determine whether an existing home is suited to be suited — or not:

No Existing Suites

Suites can't be stratified or subdivided within Greater Victoria, and can't be installed in homes that already have a secondary suite, garden suite, or multi-family structure. Duplexes and triplexes are ineligible to have suites added.

(This may eventually change in the City of Victoria, where the city council is currently exploring the option of allowing multiple rental suites and secondary suites in housing such as duplexes and on lots with a garden suite.)

Note that while suites can't be strata titled, it's still possible to co-own the entire property with a friend or family member, and then have an internal agreement as to who lives in the main home and who lives in the suite.

Enough Space

The maximum size of most secondary suites is 90 square meters / 969 square feet, or 40% of the home’s total floor area; whichever is less. (Common areas such as shared laundry rooms aren't counted towards the suite's total size.) At the same time, districts can require that suites have a minimum of 2 rooms, including a bathroom, sleeping area, and kitchen area. Existing or potential ceiling clearance for a suite needs to be at least 2 meters / 6’7”, and halls and stairways need a minimum width of 0.86 meters / 34”.

Depending on your municipality, there may be a specific minimum property size that you have to match in order to get approval for a secondary suite. Homes smaller than that minimum will be ineligible.

Room For Entrances & Exits

Secondary suites require a separate private entrance from the main home, with a swing door (no sliding doors) no smaller than 0.8 meters / 32", a deadbolt lock, and a door viewer or window. If your property already has an entrance meeting these requirements in an area where a suite can be built, it can save you having to construct a totally new entrance to code.

In addition to a main entrance/exit, every suite bedroom must have at least one window with a minimum height or width of 0.38 meters / 15”, an opening area of at least 0.35 square meters / 3.8 square feet, and which can be opened from the inside without any tools or special knowledge. If you're planning on adding a basement suite, check the ground level against the exterior wall — if there isn't enough space to add a window, the ground level will need to be lowered.

Support For Heat & Ventilation

A legal secondary suite needs to have an independent heating system and can't share furnace ducts with the main home. Existing systems will need to be sealed off from the suite, meaning the more complicated and interconnected your current heating system is, the more work will need to be done. The suite will also need its own fuel or electricity source to support whatever heating system it uses. (Baseboard heaters are the most common for suites, but may be too much for older electrical systems to support.)

Enough wall space and power sources should be available to support the minimum amount of suite ventilation, which includes at least one constantly-running principal exhaust fan, and exhaust fans that vent outside for each bathroom and kitchen area. If the suite contains any fuel-fed appliances like a fireplace or hot water tank, a fresh air intake is also required. The suite should remain comfortable and dry, so any existing moisture problems will either need to be repaired or kept at bay with extra ventilation.

Up-To-Date Plumbing & Electrical Systems

Any legal suite needs to have its own electricity and plumbing system. At minimum a suite requires a kitchen sink, bathroom sink, water closet, and bathtub or shower, all with potable water.

Smaller homes serviced with ½" or ¾" water supply pipes will need to upgrade to a larger supply to support a suite. Older homes may contain toxic lead plumbing which would have to be removed, or steel plumbing which could be deteriorating. Properties with a septic tank may need to upgrade their septic system to accommodate a suite, or may not be able to add a suite at all. The position of existing plumbing is also important — if it doesn't reach the planned suite, new pipes will need to be installed to supply the suite's bathroom and kitchen.

Depending on the size and age of the house, the electrical system may also have to be upgraded in order to properly support a suite. Modern circuitry is needed to supply heavy appliances such as refrigerators, electric stoves, and microwave ovens. Fuse and breaker panels also need to be properly located for accessibility.

Fire Safety Wiring

Unless you have an approved and to-code sprinkler system in both the main home and the suite, a 30-45 minute fire separation needs to exist between the suite and the rest of the building. This is usually created by installing extra fire-resistant drywall, which will infringe on your available space. Common spaces also need to have their own fire separations and fire rated doors.

Smoke alarms have to be hard-wired and interconnected, and are required in every suite bedroom, at least one location between the bedroom(s) and the rest of the suite, and in the main home.

Suites In Greater Victoria

Once you've determined that your property meets the standard requirements for adding a suite, you'll need to check in with your local municipal bylaws to see if there are any additional requirements for your area. Here I've collected the standard information on secondary suites in the major Greater Victoria districts as presented on their websites:

Building A Suite in Victoria

Requirements

Getting Started

The first step to creating a legal suite is to contact the city of Victoria’s Zoning division at City Hall at 250-361-0316. Once you have confirmed that your property is eligible, you then apply for a Building Permit. To learn more about the permit process, contact Permits and Inspections at 250-361-0342 or permits@victoria.ca.

Building A Suite in Esquimalt

Requirements

  • Properties with a Section 219 Covenant on the title aren’t eligible for a secondary suite.
  • Secondary suites can’t be used for boarding.
  • The homeowner must live in either the main home or the suite; both can't be rented out at the same time.
  • 2 copies of construction drawings that show the proposed floor plan, structural framing information, and building cross-section of the suite within the main building. Drawings must be to scale and in metric.
  • If the suite will change your home’s footprint, you will also have to provide a survey certificate at a scale of 1:100 or more showing the building setbacks, existing ground levels, finished ground levels, and elevation drawings of any exterior walls that are affected.

Getting Started

If your property has the appropriate zoning and land area, you can start with a Building Permit application for the creation of a Secondary Suite within a single family residence. Questions can be directed to Development Services at 250-414-7103 or Development.Services@esquimalt.ca.

Building A Suite in Saanich

Requirements

  • The property must be within the Secondary Suite Permit Area and zoned for single family use.
  • The property owner has to provide a signed affidavit proving that either the main home or the suite is their own principal residence.
  • Secondary suites can’t be used for boarding.
  • No more than 2 kitchens per home or lot. You can have “Accommodation For A Family Member” or a secondary suite, but not both.
  • Secondary suites have to exist entirely within the main home, and can’t be connected by a breezeway or enclosed hallway.
  • Suites must have a minimum of 2 rooms, including a bedroom, bathroom, and cooking area.
  • A building exterior that fits in with other single family buildings in the area.
  • At least one additional on-site, off-street parking space for the suite’s occupant (this can be tandem driveway parking if you already have room).

Getting Started

Consult a building professional — builder, building designer, or architect — to learn what you need to meet relevant BC Building Code requirements. Local bylaws can be confirmed with the Saanich Planning Department at 250-475-5471 or planning@saanich.ca. You'll need to apply for a Building Permit for Renovation of a Single Family Dwelling, and for Addition to a Single Family Dwelling.

Building A Suite in View Royal

Requirements

  • Your home must be located within one of these 6 land use zones:
    • R-1: One family residential
    • R-2: Duplex Residential (Detached Only)
    • A-1: Rural
    • A-2: Pike Lake Rural Residential
    • A-3: Rural Residential
    • CD-9CS: Low Density Suite Residential (Lakeside Village)
  • Secondary suites can’t be used for boarding.
  • Home-based businesses in a suited home may be restricted by the Town’s Zoning Bylaw.
  • The property must have at least 600 square meters / 6458 square feet of land.
  • At least 3 off-street parking spaces that don’t take up more than 50 square meters / 538 square feet of the front yard.
  • Annual owner-submitted secondary suite permit, and statutory declaration of owner occupancy (renewed every March).

Getting Started

To apply for a secondary suite permit you'll need a Secondary Suite Application Form, a copy of your State of Title Certificate (made within the past month), your application fee, and a site plan or floor plan that shows details like property lines, building dimensions, setbacks, parking, and the suite location within the building. Questions can be directed to the Building Department at 250-727-7903 or the Planning Department online.

Building A Suite in Colwood

The City of Colwood used to require special secondary suite permits from homeowners who wanted to add a suite, but these were recently repealed in 2017 in favour of standard building permits.

Requirements

  • Your home must be located within one of the following land zones:
    • AG1-2
    • A1
    • AR1-2
    • R1-5
    • RM1-2
    • RC1
    • CT1
    • P1-2
    • P4
    • P6
    • RBCD1-3
    • CD3
    • CD8-9
  • At least 3 off-street parking spaces that don’t take up more than 50 square meters / 538 square feet of the front yard.
  • The homeowner must live in either the main home or the suite; both can't be rented out at the same time.

Getting Started

Talk to one of the City planners at 250-478-5999 to confirm that your property is suitable for a secondary suite and to discuss what the requirements are. They can review the Secondary Suite Checklist with you and direct you other key contacts in the City to move forward with a Building Permit.

Building A Suite in Langford

Requirements

  • The property must be zoned for single family dwelling with a secondary suite.
  • The homeowner must live in either the main home or the suite; both can't be rented out at the same time.
  • The property must have at least 550 square meters / 5920 square feet of land, and be connected to municipal sewer.
  • At least one additional on-site, off-street parking space for the suite’s occupant.

Getting Started

Before you apply for a permit, it's best to have a Building Inspector review your home to ensure the basic requirements can be met. If everything checks out, you can contact City Hall at 250-478-7882 to begin the application process.

What About Suites In Oak Bay?

Oak Bay still doesn’t regulate or legalize secondary suites, although a large number of illegal suites are known to exist in the area. The Oak Bay Council voted in favour of moving forward on secondary suite legalization last March, so regulation and legal secondary suites may not be far on the horizon.

Back to Top