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Building a secondary suite in your house can be a cost-effective way to provide accommodation for a family member or to create new rental space.

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The term secondary suite is generally used to describe an independent dwelling unit that is separate from the principal dwelling in a house and has its own kitchen and bathroom. It can be located either within the principal dwelling or in an accessory building on the same lot. These units are also known as accessory apartments and in-law suites.

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A secondary suite is an affordable housing option that meets the needs of many people, including members of an extended family, singles, seniors and people with low or fixed incomes.

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Basement apartments are the most common type of secondary suite. These units can provide income and extra security for the homeowner who has more space than is needed or they can make entering the housing market easier for first-time buyers, who may use the rental income to offset their mortgage costs.

Since they are usually constructed inside existing buildings, secondary suites help optimize the use of existing housing stock and infrastructure and re-populate neighbourhoods.

Whether you intend to renovate an existing secondary suite or add a new one, before you start, you should review the building code requirements for your jurisdiction and consult a Development Information Officer. They will tell you whether a secondary suite is permitted on your property, whether additional parking is required, where the entrance and windows can be located, how large the apartment can be and how many bedrooms it may contain.

This way, you can be sure that your design conforms to the requirements of the fire and building codes and complies with zoning requirements. If you were to build a secondary suite in violation of these requirements, you could be forced to make it comply or to remove it altogether.

Secondary suites should also be healthy and safe to live in. If located in a basement, any pre-existing moisture problem should be resolved. Excessive moisture can damage finishes, framing and personal belongings and contribute to conditions that promote mould growth. A safe and healthy suite has space that is large (and high) enough, sufficient natural light, heating and ventilation, adequate thermal and sound insulation, good fire protection, and reliable heat and smoke alarms.

If the space you intend to use is not high, dry and sound, you should correct these problems before or during construction of your secondary suite.

Secondary suites can provide affordable living space and intensify urban development without adding new buildings to the landscape. Depending on your circumstances, your secondary suite may even qualify for a grant or loan. For example, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) offers financial assistance to homeowners who build secondary suites for adults with disabilities and seniors with low incomes. If you meet the criteria, you may be eligible for a forgivable loan through CMHC’s Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP) for Secondary/Garden Suite.

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