It takes a lot of work and a lot of planning — more than most people think — to properly turn a basement into an apartment that can be rented out. Sometimes it’s like opening a can of worms. Just to plan it out right and to get the appropriate permits takes about three months.
The first step should be to figure out if it can even be done, because if it can’t, you don’t want to waste your money or your time.
Go to your municipality (you can call, go in person or go online) and check the rules and regulations on turning a basement into a rental unit. Every municipality is different; some allow it, some don’t, and each one might have a different set of requirements for how they want it to be done properly.
Once you know it can be done, your next step is to go to an architect, engineer or, if you live in Ontario, a qualified person with a BCIN (Building Code Inspection Number) to create the plans/drawings for the project.
And yes, you will need plans! Without plans, you can’t get permits, and if you don’t have permits you’re asking for trouble.
If you don’t have a permit when construction starts, not only can you be ordered to stop the project, you might also have to uncover or remove any finished work to expose what’s been done so it can be inspected. Plus, getting a permit means the city will send an inspector to make sure the work is being done properly. Without a permit, it’s a crapshoot.
The professional you hire to create the drawings or plans should work with you to include the design elements you want, but more important, they’ll also make sure the plans are to code.
There are certain requirements for a basement apartment. Means of egress (i.e. exit) is a biggie. There must be a safe and unobstructed exit, so anyone in the basement apartment can safely exit, especially in case of an emergency, like a fire.
If your basement doesn’t have a safe exit, the project can get very expensive very quickly. You will have to hire an engineer to make the proper plans for a separate exit, and engineers aren’t cheap. But if you’re not touching the building structure, you don’t necessarily need an engineer.
The first step should be to figure out if it can even be done,
because if it can’t, you don’t want to waste your money or your time.
Fireproofing or fire separation is another big thing to consider.
For example, on one project I worked on, the city wanted a resilient channel on the ceiling, which is basically a metal channel that drops the ceiling down about an inch or an inch and a half, plus two layers of 5/8-inch drywall on the ceiling.
The city might also request fire-rated windows (or windows with fire-rated glass), which might not be available in different areas. That means looking at different options, such as glass block instead of a window, so you still get natural light but it’s also fire-rated.
There’s also a limit to how much glass or how many windows you can have, depending on how close your home is to the property line, again to reduce the chance of a fire spreading to adjacent properties. This can be an issue if local code requires that you add windows to the basement apartment.
Some municipalities might also want sound separation, so sound doesn’t travel from the basement up.
Then there are the mechanics: electricity, plumbing and HVAC. That might mean rewiring the basement and changing the electrical panel, or maybe breaking through the concrete floor to run sewer lines to a new toilet and shower. In one case, after we did this we realized the weeping tiles were tied into the sewer lines, which prevented us installing a backwater valve (or backflow preventer), so we had to install a sump pump, which meant more money.
That’s why it’s important to do your homework. Invest in getting the proper drawings, be involved, ask plenty of questions, and go to the city — because it could turn out to be a massive project that could take years to recover financially — and maybe mentally, too!
I always recommend homeowners get involved in any home renovation. You don’t want to hand everything off to a contractor and assume they will take care of everything for you — and do it right. It’s your house and your money; no one will care about it as much as you.