If you are looking to move out of your parent’s home and into your own space, it can seem impossible with the market the way it is. Whether you are looking to leave the nest or are new to Canada, you probably want to find a cheaper place to live. If so, basement apartments are a great option. Landlords usually rent out their basement to tenants and live in the home above. As a result, they don’t charge tenants too much rent because they are only renting a part of the house. This also means that you can live in better neighbourhoods while paying less expensive rent than other types of housing. Let’s tackle what qualifies as a basement apartment, and factors to consider before deciding to live in one.

What is considered a basement apartment?

An authentic basement apartment is located at least 50% below ground level in an apartment building or single dwelling. The lower unit is a basement or cellar apartment in a typical upper-lower duplex. There’s usually a shared entryway on the main floor with a door to the basement, which includes a bedroom(s), an eat-in kitchen or kitchenette, a bathroom, and/or a living room. There can also be a small mechanical room that services the whole building.

Also known as…

There are a few different kinds of or names for basement apartments you may see during your search:

  • Daylight basement apartment: This type of basement apartment features at least one full-sized window or a sliding door, which lets in more sunlight and offers the chance to get fresh air inside the space. Daylight basements, also referred to as “English basements,” are common to row houses or low-rise apartment buildings.
  • Garden apartment: A garden apartment is a version of a basement apartment that is 50% above ground. It typically has its own “garden” entrance at ground level, and a small yard at the back of the building. A garden apartment is slightly more elevated than an apartment below street level, with more access to natural daylight.
  • Cellar apartment: A cellar apartment is at least 50% below ground level, with windows at the ground level and the entire living space below ground level.
  • Basement apartment: Slightly different than a cellar apartment, a basement apartment has at least 50% of its living area above ground level, with larger windows that bring in more natural light.

Basement apartments are separate living spaces from the home above them. They are an attractive option because they often have more square footage than standard apartments. Also, your rent may be cheaper in high-rent locations than traditional apartment complexes. However, renting a basement apartment does not come without a unique set of challenges. It’s important to ask your potential landlord detailed questions regarding their space while viewing/considering them.

Not all basement apartments are created equal

The average basement apartment plays a significant role in the Toronto real estate market. In 2020, 1,430 houses were sold that advertised some form of “basement apartment” in the GTA. However, of those 1,430, only 303 (or 21%) advertised the basement apartment as “legal”. In Ontario, a basement apartment is legally referred to as a “secondary unit”, windows must equate to at least 5% of the living floor area and 2.5% of the bedroom floor area. There are also multiple codes at varying levels that need to be met in order for a basement unit to be considered legal. Ontario-based apartment rentals have to adhere to the Ontario Building Code standards, as well as Fire Code standards.

According to Realtor.ca, provincial regulations and city bylaws typically stipulate the minimum standards that qualify a secondary unit as ‘legal’. Differing from province to province, mandates typically specify:

  • The number of exits required
  • Window size
  • The minimum ceiling height
  • Unit size
  • Access to utilities
  • Compliance with fire safety and electrical safety regulations.

How to know if the apartment is legal

If your potential landlord owns a legal basement apartment, they should possess and be able to present, upon demand, the following proof of legality:

  • Fire Certificate from Local Fire Authority (or Fire Chief).
  • ESA Certificate or ESA Sticker.
  • Building Permit Completion or Certificate of Compliance from the Municipal Building Department. In some municipalities, this can also be proof of registration.

If you’re planning to rent a basement apartment, it’s prudent to ask the landlord for all three proofs. Failure to present these can mean you are renting an illegal basement apartment.

How to know if the basement apartment is up to code

No matter what type of apartment you’re looking at, you’ll want to be sure the apartment is up to code and in compliance for what constitutes as a basement apartment. Here are some specific regulations that apply:

  • Minimum ceiling height: The ceiling should be a minimum of seven feet high.
  • Damp proof: The walls of a basement apartment should be water- and damp-proofed. The unit should also have a sump pump to remove groundwater.
  • Interior doors: Interior doors need to be at least 1.75 inches thick, with a 1/2-inch gap at the bottom of each door for air circulation. If there’s no 1/2-inch gap, the unit needs air ducts installed.
  • Minimum room size: A bedroom must be at least 70 square feet to be legally considered a bedroom.
  • A separate entrance: Your basement apartment must have its own entrance to the street or yard. You must also have at least one egress window for a fire escape.
  • Windows: The windows must open at least 24 inches and be at least 20 inches wide, situated no higher than 44 inches from the floor. There should be a clear area on both sides of the window of five square feet for ground level or below level windows.

Common issues you may encounter in a basement apartment

  • Dampness or a musty smell: With less sun exposure and air circulation, humid conditions are more likely in this type of unit, which can be a concern for people with asthma and allergies. A musty smell can sink into furniture, carpeting, and clothing.
  • Mould: Mould can develop in damp areas that lack adequate ventilation, such as what can be found in some basement apartments.
  • Radon: The presence of radon gas has been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer. An airtight basement apartment that lacks sufficient ventilation can increase the risk of radon exposure.
  • Security: Basement apartments are easier to access than units on a higher level in the building, which can come with its own security concerns.

Considerations when looking for a basement apartment

While the apartment size may be great and its proximity to work or school can’t be beat, you are for all intents and purposes going to have “roommates”. Remember, when renting a basement apartment, you’re living below someone. So, think about your lifestyle and who will be living upstairs. Are you okay if it’s a family with children? Do you work from home? Do you work the night shift and need your sleep during the day? Before signing any lease agreement, talk with one of our isure representatives about renter/tenant insurance. We can help you make sure your possessions are covered in case of any damages to the home you are renting, such as water damage. If you do your due diligence, you can find a terrific lower level flat that gives you lots of space to live in and even more savings for your monthly rental bill, too.

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