Laneway Houses and Garden Suites: So Much More Than A Rental Unit

by | February 8, 2024

Completely biased opinion here, but laneway houses and garden suites are the perfect solution for any family housing crisis. Let me explain – even better, let me put you in the head of a worrying mother. Don’t be scared, we won’t stay there too long.

If you’re like me, a member of the sandwich generation, you’re stuck in the middle worrying about how your twenty something kid is going to start living their life without you, while you live in angst worrying about where your aging parents are going to end up at the end of their life. It’s an awkward, uncomfortable topic no one likes to talk about, but housing is a big factor in all this worrying. Where will they live? As your kids mature and go off to school, the hope is that once they graduate they will fall into a fantastic career, move out, gain their independence, eventually buy their own home and start their adult life, but the reality is, even if they find that career, the housing costs are astronomical and its unrealistic to think they will be able to afford $2,500 per month or more for a condo or house with an entry level salary.

Same with your parents. As you convince them to downsize, you soon realize these smaller homes are not any cheaper and the cost of retirement living is often beyond their financial capacity. Once these two realities collide, you then feel your chest tightening, with a vice gripping rush of anxiety that they will all be moving in with you one day … soon.

So, I hope you’ve now pieced together how laneway housing and garden suites fit into all of this. They can give your family an affordable housing option that allows everyone to retain their independence, and most importantly allows you to keep your own space and privacy. Of course, there’s also the added bonus of some rental income and an increase in your property value.

So what is the difference between a laneway house and a garden suite?

If you’re not familiar with these terms both are detached second dwellings, literally built in your backyard, but laneway houses face onto a public laneway, while garden suites do not.

Laneway houses can be an apartment over a garage, a garage converted completely into a house, or a brand-new structure built from the ground up, as long as it’s on your property and has access to a public laneway.

If your property is not located on a public laneway, don’t despair, a garden suite may be right for you. Unlike a laneway house, a garden suite can be built in your contained backyard, but the tenants will need to access the street through the front of your property since there is no laneway access.

Here are some important things to note about laneway houses and garden suites:

  • They cannot be severed from your land. In other words, you can’t sell it as a separate property later. Nice try!
  • They share many services with the main house, like electricity, water, wastewater, and waste collection
  • They must have a kitchen and bathroom inside, so they can’t just be an added bedroom or bunkie in your yard
  • They can only be used as one housing unit, so basically you can’t split a laneway house into two or more self-contained rental units
  • They share your address – so a laneway house or garden suite will not have its own separate mailing address

In many ways it’s like having a basement apartment only your family members (or tenants) will get more sunlight and they won’t have their landlord walking overhead listening to their every move. This benefit goes both ways. As the homeowner you don’t have to worry about them listening in on you either. No complaints about each other’s music, volume, cooking smells, other smells … you get the picture. Separation can be a good thing.

What are the rules around building laneway houses and garden suites?

As with most things there are some rules to be followed, also known as by-laws. The best advice I can give is to first check with your town or city to see if they allow laneway housing or garden suites. The province of Ontario’s webpage is also a great resource to check out before you get planning.

Lucky for those of us living in Toronto the city has green-lit this type of housing and the following are some of the details required, but again be sure to check out the full guidelines for building laneway housing and garden suites in Toronto before you start.

To build a laneway house or garden suite you will need to get a building permit. In Toronto your property must have:

  • the right zoning for residential housing
  • at least 3.5 metres along the back or side that touches a public laneway; this is obviously not required for garden suites
  • a path 0.9 metres wide leading from the front of your house to your garden suite or laneway house for emergency use
  • access to a fire hydrant, with no more than 45 metres between the fire hydrant and the front of your house where the fire truck will sit; and no more than 90 metres from the fire truck to the garden suite / laneway house
  • no trees under protection by the City of Toronto that need to be taken down. How will you know if your tree is protected, you ask? Rule of thumb is, if you have a tree with a trunk larger than 0.3 metres in diameter at 1.4 metres above ground it’s likely protected and you will need to get a tree removal permit from Toronto Parks and Forestry.

To prevent us dreamers from going too crazy building monstrosities in our backyard for our kids there are limits on how tall we can go. These houses or suites can not be more than six metres tall and can not be less than five metres away from the main house.

So what do you need to do next?

Assuming you’ve now determined you want a laneway house or garden suite, and your town or city allows these types of houses, my recommendations are to now:

  1. Confirm your property meets the criteria set out by your town or city
  2. Hire an Ontario Land Surveyor to prepare a Surveyor’s Real Property Report and Topographic Survey of your property
  3. Use your surveys to determine the area or space you have to build on, making sure you’re not too close to your main house or the neighbouring properties and allowing the 0.9 metre width access path needed to the front of your property
  4. Decide if you are hiring a general contractor, or managing the architect and builder yourself
  5. Design your laneway house or garden suite and finalize the plans
  6. Apply for building permits through your town or city
  7. Inquire with your town of city if any other permits are required, like a tree removal permit
  8. If you live in Toronto consider applying to the city’s Development Charges Deferral Program to defer development charges for twenty years

How important is it to get a survey?

Before you begin designing your new laneway house or garden suite it’s smart to get a Surveyor’s Real Property Report to give you the base plan to work with for your design. This report shows the property’s boundaries and maps out any existing buildings or fences on the property.

In the City of Toronto a combined Surveyor’s Real Property Report and Topographic Survey is key for calculating the established grade of your land, lot coverage and other important details needed by the city to issue a building a permit.

You may not realize this but even if you already have a survey from when you purchased the property it may be considered outdated if it’s over ten years old or if you’ve made any structural changes to your property, like building a shed, fence or adding any structural permanent landscaping features.

Also, property or boundary markers are usually placed at the front of properties, but when you get a survey done for the purpose of building a laneway house or garden suite these property markers can be staked out at the rear corners of the property. Having these in place will help things go smoothly when city inspectors visit your property, and the building process begins.

Make no mistake, there is a lot to consider, and a lot of planning to do, and I can’t stress enough how important it is to reach out to your town or city to learn about their by-laws and requirements before you get started – but overall the big message here is that there is a lot to be gained, by adding one of these additional housing units to your property. Start planning now – and it’s never too early to ask for a quote or advice.

About the Author

Leslie Gilbert

Leslie Gilbert

Leslie Gilbert is a communicator and environmentalist with over 15 years’ experience specializing in behaviour change communication. When not writing communications plans, web copy and social media content she can usually be found travelling, hiking or relaxing at the cottage with her family.

Let's Work Together

Specializing in urban redevelopment, commercial land development, construction, heavy civil and infrastructure projects across Ontario.

About Us

Committed to providing our clients with excellent products and customer service.

Related Posts




Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Let’s Work Together

If you are looking for a new partner for your next project, reach out today to learn what sets us apart.