In BC’s Lower Mainland, the price of housing has been growing faster than people's income for more than a decade. Even while our US neighbours suffered the worst real estate crash in modern times, our market continued to become more unaffordable for the average home owner. One tool that homeowners have turned to is a ‘mortgage helper’ often in the form of a basement suite. A question we often have from clients is what impact does a suite have on a home inspection?
Aren't Most Basement Suites Illegal?
Yes, based on neighborhood zoning and tough municipal building codes. However, municipalities have also said that if they shut down all the ‘unauthorized’ basement suites, there would not be enough affordable rental housing stock available. This has put the municipalities in a tough position to ensure available rental inventory and still ensure safety for the tenants in unauthorized suites. Because of this tough position, many municipalities have published ‘minimum’ requirements for ‘unauthorized’ suites which typically include minimum requirements for smoke detectors, emergency exits, and tenant parking.
What are Municipalities Looking for in a Basement Suite?
The two big concerns when you want to build municipally ‘legal’ basement suite are zoning and code compliance. Zoning means that the area of the municipality you live in has been ‘zoned’ for multiple families in a single household. This issue has to do with how much water, sewer, and parking the municipality has available to the neighborhood. If the infrastructure is very old, it may not stand up to the demand of suites in potentially every house. The second concern is building codes which have a heavy focus on fire separations between suites in any building including basement suites. Each municipality has its own zones and codes for basement suites and in some cases it can be very expensive to put in a ‘legal’ basement suite.
What is a Home Inspector Looking for in a Basement Suite?
Home inspectors are not looking for code compliance. There are far too many codes in far too many disciplines and municipalities for anyone to be an expert in them all, not to mention they are always changing. Home inspectors are looking for the same thing in basement suites they are looking for in the main suite which is good building practices, correct use of materials, and occupant safety. A good home inspector will even check the appliances to ensure they are in good working order.
Some key things home inspectors look for in basement suites are:
- Safe and Correctly functioning kitchens
- Safe and Correctly functioning bathrooms
- Usable emergency exits from bedroom windows
- Suitable and correct heating sources
- Safe electrical usage
- Any mechanical or structural impacts on the rest of the house
Do Home Inspectors Report Basement Suites to Anyone?
Home Inspectors create a report exclusively for the use of our clients. Only if there is a life threatening situation (e.g. gas leak) would we notify the current occupants or utility company of anything we discover in the inspection. We don’t even tell your realtor anything in our report unless you give us permission to provide it to them.
If you are buying a house with a rental basement suite, you are getting into the business of being a landlord and that comes with responsibilities to the safety and quality of life of your tenants. As your home inspector, we will give you our best advice and a written report to help you ensure your tenants are in a safe and functional suite. We also recommend you investigate your municipality zoning and bylaws to ensure you know if you are in compliance with municipal codes.