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Are you thinking about a new in law suite, or renting out your basement and bringing in a tenant? To many people, space within their own home seems like an attractive option for either making some extra income or making a living suite with an asset already at their disposal. However, it is more complicated than just a basement renovation and signing a rental contract with a new tenant. Once you aim to use a basement or other area of your home as a separate living space, it ceases to be simply your home and instead becomes a secondary dwelling.

There are many factors to consider when looking to renovate with the goal of having a legal secondary dwelling in the City of Ottawa. Here are some to keep in mind:


Before the creation of a secondary dwelling can advance in any fashion, the first step is to ensure the zoning in your area allows for one. According to the City of Ottawa Zoning By-Laws, a secondary dwelling is permitted in almost all areas except in the former Village of Rockcliffe Park and in duplex dwellings in the Queensway Terrace North neighbourhood.


According to the City of Ottawa, if a secondary dwelling is found in the basement, it can occupy the entire basement space. There are no restrictions on dimensions.


When preparing a secondary dwelling that involves a basement renovation, the best way to approach the fire safety requirements is to remember that the unit must be compartmentalized from the principal dwelling.  Remember that secondary dwellings will have their own kitchen and stove, so fire safety is important in order to prevent fire from spreading unit to unit. Four main areas to focus on are: smoke alarms, fire containment, escape routes and electrical safety.

Fire Alarms

According to the Ontario Fire Code (OFC), smoke alarms are the responsibility of the owner of the principal dwelling and therefore must be tested and maintained by the owner. There must be a smoke alarm on every floor of a dwelling and outside of every sleeping area.

In addition, as of January 1, 2015, code requires that all smoke alarms in new renovations or constructions have a visual signaling component, which can be found in a smoke-strobe alarm device. The new code also requires one smoke-strobe alarm to be placed inside every bedroom.  This means that if you are renovating your basement to include a secondary dwelling, you must have a smoke-strobe alarm outside of the sleeping area (in the hallway) and also inside any bedrooms you create in the basement.

A carbon monoxide detector must also be placed outside all sleeping areas.

Fire Containment

Fire containment is important as it should provide protection for each set of occupants from fires originating in the other part of the dwelling unit.

Drywall separating the different dwelling units needs to be fire ready and have a minimum of a 30-minute fire rating. Fire caulking is another product that should be used as a sealant for added protection.

Some exceptions to the 30-minute fire rating exist depending on the presence of interconnected fire alarms or sprinklers. Check with your local fire authority for more information.

Secondary dwellings also require their own entrance, either leading into the rest of the home or leading directly outside. These doors need to be fire rated as well and constructed of solid wood or metal.

Some additional fire safety options for containment to consider are fire dampers and duct smoke detectors.  These devices work in tandem to shut down the furnace if smoke is detected in the ductwork and prevent the spread of smoke to other parts of the house.

Escape Routes

Also known as means of egress, in the event of fire every secondary dwelling unit requires a means of escape.

If the basement unit has a door on the same level that exits to the outside, then no egress window is required. However, if the exit door is located on another level, or involves entering through another dwelling unit to access it, then a second escape route in the form of a window is required.

In this scenario, the window must be able to be opened from the inside without tools and the window opening itself must be provide a minimum area of (3.8 ft²) with no dimension less than 15 inches.

Contrary to what many assume, a basement bedroom in Ontario does not require a window. The egress window requirements in Ontario specify only that the window is somewhere on the basement level.


Secondary dwellings in the basement require an Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) inspection by a licensed contractor. Some issues to consider are whether you want to bill your tenant for their separate hydro usage, and if a separate hydro meter and electrical panel would be required in that scenario.

There are only some of the requirements to consider when looking to create a secondary dwelling. Every province and city has their own specific requirements for legal secondary dwellings. For more information, visit the City of Ottawa’s website and contact the relevant safety authorities for inspection. While secondary dwellings are a great way to use your own home for other beneficial purposes, it pays to approach them the right way from the beginning so as to avoid any safety or legal issues down the road.

Considering a secondary dwelling renovation or adding an in-law suite to your home? Get your project started with our team of professionally trained experts. Email us at [email protected] or call (613) 725-7366 and share your ideas with us today!