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Questions You May Have About Implementing a Laneway House

Do you own a home and are looking for a way to pay off your mortgage faster? With a decrease in available houses in urban areas and an increase in costs, people are looking for alternative ways of living. A sustainable movement, trending minimalism, and the new life/work balance have paved the way for tiny houses, van life, and laneway housing.

In Canada, Vancouver has approved 3,000 laneway permits since their implementation in 2009 as a response to its housing crisis. Ottawa is nurturing laneway housing with innovative policies to increase the availability of affordable housing and bring more density to established neighbourhoods. The city of Toronto, facing its own housing crisis, finally approved laneway houses in June of 2018.

Laneway houses are a great source of passive income. They offer a solution to live close to aging parents, or a way to provide a suite for your children while giving them (and you) some much-needed freedom. If you own a garage, but not a car, why not make extra income?

What questions might you have about implementing a laneway house?

I sat down with Sean Galbraith of Galbraith & Associates – a firm specializing in smaller urban planning projects to get some answers. For over 20 years, Sean has been helping clients through the development application process. He’s also an active member of the Laneway Suites Toronto Facebook page. I asked him, in his years of experience, what questions he gets asked most often.

First, what is a laneway house?

Sean: A laneway suite is a small residence, detached from the primary home, at the back of the property or lot. All the mechanical services and utilities are connected and shared with the main house.   

How much does it cost to build a laneway house?

Sean: I have heard that a laneway house might run in the neighbourhood of about $300,000 or so. A lot will depend on access for heavy machinery, cost of mechanical connections, and finishes to the interior and exterior.

Can I sever and sell my property to someone who wants to build a laneway home?

Sean: No, and I get asked all the time. The official plan and zoning strongly discourages a lot severance, and the city will fight hard against it. Laneway suites are designed to create rental suites in areas desperately in need of them, not to create saleable units. Toronto doesn’t have enough rental units.

In some cases, it might be possible, but these are the exceptions. If you’re lucky, it would only require an application to the Committee of Adjustment, and maybe a Toronto Local Appeal Body (TLAB) appeal. It’s more likely that you’d need to rezone the property, an expensive and risky proposition. It will cost you a lot of money to take the chance, and in no way does it guarantee success

Does any property with a laneway qualify?

Sean: No, due to provisions in the fire code. You have to be within 45 metres of the main street with a clear passage between the houses, or within 45 metres of the entrance of the lane. So a garage in the middle of a long stretch of laneway may not qualify.

I don’t have a lane. Can I still have a unit in my backyard?

No. Well, not yet anyway. It’s taken over 20 years to get laneway houses approved. A coach house, as it would be called, is not part of the policy nor is it part of the zoning. Toronto wants to see how laneway houses develop first. Ideally, there aren’t any problems, and we’ll see coach houses get approval in a few years but with their own set of rules and regulations.

I live in Toronto, so I can build a laneway house now, right?

Sean: Well, no. Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough have sort of been cut out of the mix. Toronto council has approved laneway housing mainly for downtown and east york. Most laneways are in these areas, and the community and their councillors supported the efforts to permit them.

If I want a laneway house, what do I do next?

Sean: The zoning is set up now. You can get permits, and no variances are needed if you design within the limits the city put in place. If you want to do something different, something with special circumstances, you’d contact me.

I work with a couple boutique architectural firms, including Solares Architecture, who focus on sustainable residential design, and Lieux Architects, who specialize in one-off custom residential projects.

Can I build an off-grid suite? Rainwater collection, composting toilets, etc.

The city does not want you off-grid. Yes, you can put solar panels, but they still want you connected to the main house.  

Anything you’d like to add?

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen is this Vancouver builder who will build your laneway house for free. It’s a cool idea. He constructs the house for free but gets the rental income from it for ten years. It may be appealing to a lot of people who want one but are currently low on funds.

Whether you have the capital now or need to contact a Toronto mortgage broker to discuss options (or a Vancouver mortgage broker, if you’re on the West Coast). Will you be investing in a laneway house? If you are, be sure to get home insurance quotes. Your current provider may only cover a detached structure (read: a shed) and nowhere near the value of a laneway house. Square one insurance offers full laneway housing insurance for $75/month. If you’re looking for more information on laneway housing, here is a list of sites with a wealth of knowledge on the subject.


Photo provided by LANESCAPE