What Homeowners in B.C. need to Know about Secondary Suites

With provincial financial aid coming soon, building a secondary suite is one option that could help homeowners and buyers offset the high costs of ownership.

By Brett Surbey | 4 minute read

Oct 12

While secondary suites are convenient, homeowners and buyers need to know what they’re getting into.

It’s not news to anyone that housing in British Columbia is expensive. According to recent housing statistics from the British Columbia Real Estate Association (BCREA), homes in B.C. have risen approximately 5% year-over-year. The result of that climb? The average home in the province now costs just under $960,000 — the highest average amount for any home in Canada, according to new statistics from personal finance site WOWA.ca.

“B.C. Housing will be rolling out their Secondary Suite Incentive Program for applications in April 2024, which will allow homeowners to use government subsidies to help lessen the overbearing costs of installing secondary suites to code.”

For many families facing high interest rates and a near-crippling cost of living, that price is out of reach. However, British Columbians could be utilizing their unused home space — or buying homes built with secondary suites attached — to curb the cost of living or find an entry-level living space. But there are few things to know before taking the leap.


The Basics 

“A secondary suite in B.C. is generally referred to everywhere else in the world as a basement apartment,” explains REALTOR® Steve Karrasch with Macdonald Realty (Delta), “Most often they are the downstairs level of a detached home that has been cordoned off to have a rental suite within a primary residence.”


While the definition might be simple to grasp, the red tape surrounding these assets is not as clear. Secondary suites have zoning restrictions and requirements depending on where you’re located in the province. In Vancouver, for example, single family homes can only have one secondary suite according to the city’s bylaws. “If you’re looking for a suite or if you’re buying a home that has a suite in it, you want to check the zoning for each individual city and find out what the bylaw allows for,” Karrasch recommends. Bu, he also finds that the legal requirements for secondary suites — at least in the Lower Mainland, which includes cities such as Burnaby, Langley, Surrey and Coquitlam — are so cumbersome and expensive that most suites are not legal. Homeowners choosing that route could face substantial risk.


Know the Rules 

In some cases, Karrasch has heard of individuals who put in secondary suites without getting the required permits who then have to remake a suite entirely to code. In some cases, he noted, this could mean gutting the former suite and building an entirely new one. “You definitely have to understand that if your suite is not 100% legal, the city can make you decommission it,” Karrasch said.


However, that’s the worst-case scenario for many homeowners. And, according to Karrasch, a city-dependent result. “There’s not really a big appetite for [decommissioning], but they do have the right.” 


In his practice, Karrasch has found that some municipalities have softened their approach to illegal secondary suites given the housing crisis the province is in. Areas like North Delta have relaxed legalization requirements, which makes it easy for homeowners. Others, like Maple Ridge, are extremely difficult to legalize a suite in, and even more difficult for owners with unauthorized suites. “If you’re going to buy an unauthorized suite in Maple Ridge, you’re really taking a risk,” he warns. 


His local area, Surrey, is one of the most laissez-faire locations with very little involvement from the city. “It’s almost hands off — they almost don’t care,” Karrasch said. In contrast to Maple Ridge’s active hunting of illegal secondary suites, the Surrey native found that his city’s approach to illegal suites was not necessarily forcing the owners to build the suite to code, but simply adding on extra tax. 


Even so, ensuring your secondary suite is compliant does have many benefits, from not facing insurance issues to potentially increasing the value of the home. “If you do have a legal [suite], that is going to increase [your home’s] value, ” Karrasch told Wahi.


B.C. Government Lends a Hand 

Given the legalities and upfront costs to build a secondary suite in some B.C. cities, many homeowners may not see secondary suites as a viable option for offsetting the high cost of homeownership in the province.  The good news is, financial help is on the horizon. 


B.C. Housing will be rolling out their Secondary Suite Incentive Program for applications in April 2024, which will allow homeowners to use government subsidies to help lessen the overbearing costs of installing secondary suites to code. 


Eligible homeowners could potentially claim up to a maximum of $40,000 in grants towards building a new secondary suite. This rebate will be in the form of a forgivable loan that does not need to be repaid — so long as the homeowner(s) follow the terms of the program.

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Additionally, Premier David Elby announced legislative changes to zoning requirements regarding secondary homes, potentially rolling out this fall. The changes will essentially legalize secondary suites in all B.C. municipalities — effectively allowing secondary suites to be built regardless of previous zoning restrictions. 


“Simply put, we need to build more homes for people faster,” Eby stated in a news conference. This move definitely does that, but homeowners need to keep an eye for nuances in the language used, Karrasch thinks. 


“That doesn’t mean that automatically your suite is legal if you didn’t build it with permits in the first place,” he said. Though these changes could ease the financial burden for homeowners building a new suite, it remains unclear how current secondary suite owners could benefit — at least for now.

Brett Surbey

Wahi Writer

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