Secondary suites are very popular items in Nanaimo, and can be an excellent source of ongoing revenue, if done properly. Variously called mortgage helpers or in-law suites, these units are in essence self-contained apartments built within a home that homeowners can rent out for profit. Traditionally suites of this type were constructed without the goal of making money, but to provide a place to live for an elder parent or a growing teenager seeking some independence.

But increasingly the potential fiscal gains of such an in-home construction project have become appealing to many homeowners. Within the City of Nanaimo secondary suites can only be constructed within a free standing single family home. You cannot have a mortgage helper if living in a condominium or apartment, nor can you have one in a mobile home. The City defines a secondary suite as:

“One or more habitable rooms, but not more than two bedrooms and one cooking facility, constituting a self-contained unit with a separate entrance, but which is clearly subordinate to the principle dwelling, for the residential accommodation of: one or more individuals who are related through marriage or common law, blood relationship, legal adoption, or legal guardianship; or a group of not more than two unrelated persons.”

In past decades there was an almost Wild West attitude toward secondary suites in the City as it seemed that any homeowner with a hammer could try their hand at putting in a basement suite, dollar signs shining in their eyes as they imagined untold wealth flowing in. While some excellent projects did result, equally shoddy, sub-par and potentially deadly accommodations also appeared, dotted all across the community. The bane of existence for Fire Marshals and city Building Inspectors, the proliferation of illegal suites lead to the passing of stringent bylaws about a decade ago that govern all aspects of in-home suites.

It is the announced ongoing goal of the City to eliminate all illegal and otherwise unauthorized accommodation in Nanaimo. All suites constructed since 2005 must comply with BC and City Building Codes as outlined in the bylaw. This requires homeowners to apply for a Building Permit, to submit building plans and other pertinent details. Once completed the finished project has to be signed off by a Building Inspector before it can ever be rented out. But what if you already have an unauthorized suite in your home, can it be used?

The answer of course is yes, suites constructed prior to 2005 can be made legal, if the City gives its approval. This requires the Inspector to come on site to conduct an assessment. This inspection could lead to an automatic green light, it could involve some minor upgrading to bring the older project up to code, or in a worst case scenario it might require a complete deconstruction of the entire project forcing the homeowner to start from scratch. It all depends on the condition of the addition and how it was constructed in the first place.

The bottom line is the City of Nanaimo is not opposed to a homeowner having a revenue generating secondary suite, but it has to be built according to city policy and bylaws. REALTORS® have been told by Building Inspectors in the past that it is their ongoing goal to identify and bring up to code all such accommodation in the city.

To avoid unnecessary expense and any future legal difficulties always check with the City’s Building Inspection Department prior to putting in a suite to make sure it’s built right the first time. If your home has an older one in place, have it checked out before bringing in tenants. By following the rules your new Mortgage Helper will enhance the value of your home, and provide a regular income – making it a win-win for all concerned.