How to bring secondary suites above board

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Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reports that in 2023, there were 1,518 secondary suites either completed or underway in Calgary. With government agencies standing by with cash incentives to build more, 2024 might be a banner year for basement suite development.

The federal government is poised to approve a new Secondary Suite Loan Program, announced in the Liberals 2024 budget, to provide homeowners with as much as $40,000 in low-interest loans. The City of Calgary’s new Secondary Suite Incentive Program has up to $10,000 available for qualifying homeowners to register and build a secondary suite within a main dwelling (sorry — not applicable to carriage, laneway or detached suites). The proposed and potential cash, combined with Calgary’s amended RCG/blanket re-zoning, will make more legal basement suites possible in more communities throughout the city.

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Saville Homes, a custom inner-city builder, has several new construction projects on the go that include basement suites in luxury infills. One current project is a single-family home being constructed for an older couple who are trading basement space they don’t need for additional retirement income. Another development underway is an infill duplex, each with a basement suite.

“This is an investment property with four doors being built for a young, single professional guy. He’s coming at it from a business perspective, with a goal to build more. From the city’s point of view, this ticks all the boxes,” says Saville owner Sheldon Appave. “It’s not just myself noticing this shift. The production builders are seeing it, too.”

Excel Homes, a production builder working in new suburban communities, has blueprint options for every floor plan to add in a one- or two-bedroom legal secondary suite.

“Almost 60 per cent of our new homes have legal suites and another 15 per cent of homes have a completed rough-in for a suite later on. These can be used for extended family or for future rental income down the road,” says marketing manager Kristina Plank. Excel is building homes with suites in Livingston, Savanna and Homestead in the northeast; Mahogany and Rangeview in the southeast and Creekstone and Silver Spruce in the southwest.

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New builds aside, the majority of basement building permits this year will likely be issued to Joe Homeowner, or their contractor, hoping to turn an unused basement into someone’s next home, particularly now that the city is working to make it easier. Or, somewhat easier. There’s still a long shopping list of approval documents to be filled out and building requirements to be satisfied before anyone can build a secondary suite.

Planning Approval/Development Permits

This step includes:

  • The submission of a site plan drawing that shows the location and dimensions of the home, other buildings on the property as well as location of exterior stairs, parking areas and amenity space for the suite.
  • Submission of a proposed floor plan, architectural drawings of the exterior elevation and safety documentation especially for homes built prior to 1990.
  • Plumbing and electrical permits.

Permit fee schedules and checklists are posted on calgary.ca. Development permit and registration fees are being waived by until Dec. 31, 2026, under the Secondary Suites Amnesty Program.

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Suite Requirements

The city has an extensive and detailed list of requirements. Here are the highlights:

  • Only one secondary suite within each dwelling unit. Either a basement suite or a carriage suite over a detached garage, but not both.
  • Minimum floor to ceiling height of six feet 4.25 inches (1.95 metres). It can be reduced by another four inches where ductwork and beams make it necessary.
  • Smoke tight separation between the main residence and suite.
  • Construction using fire-rated materials and specified door types.
  • At least one egress window per bedroom. The dimensions and type of opening must be included in the drawing.
  • Soundproofing between dwellings using specified materials.
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.
  • An exit that leads directly outside.
  • Stairway, landing, handrails and lighting requirements.
  • Separate heating systems and electrical circuits.

Danielle Mathews, co-owner of Reborn Renovations, says they’ve boiled down the entire process, from the design, planning, permitting and construction and post-possession warranties into a smooth system.

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“Since the announcement of the Secondary Suite Loan program, we’ve had a huge influx of calls. People ask, when can we get started and we say, it depends on how fast you can make decisions,” says Mathews.

Her team begins by understanding what the homeowner wants so they can create a floor plan. The Reborn designers help homeowners select interior finishings for the suite, which are usually budget-friendly, maintenance-free and durable.

“We recommend people not get too attached or wrapped up in the finishes. People need to disassociate themselves from that part of their home. They’re not going to be the ones enjoying that space,” she says.

Sticker shock is normal with any type of renovation, but the price of building a suite often is a surprise. Mathews says $80,000 is a safe starting price. A lot of that money is spent on things that homeowner can’t see, like the engineering and affidavits as part of the development process.

Appave agrees, citing a $75,000 to $100,000 price tag. “It’s like building a mini house,” he says.

Mathews says because Calgary is in a rental crisis as well as a housing crisis, homeowners will get dozens of applications from prospective renters.

“You’ll likely get a good tenant and a good price,” Mathews says. “If you have an unused basement, it’s a smart way to generate monthly income and in the long run, give you a large return on your investment.”

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