Creating legal Hamilton rental units

Since 2008, the City of Hamilton has volleyed around the idea of licensing residential rental units in buildings that contain 1-6 units. In September 2014 the City tabled it’s draft Licensing By-Law until they were able to get feedback from a task force of a stakeholders and concerned Councillors. The task force started to meet in late 2015 and discussions continue. Hamilton has a shortage of good affordable housing options. The creation of legal rental units in Hamilton is a win/win.

Chances are if you’re reading this you’ve got one or you’re thinking of buying one- an illegal duplex or triplex aka two or three family home in Hamilton. If you already own one you may be losing sleep thinking about the illegal status of your investment. If you’re thinking about buying one, you may be weighing the pro’s and con’s of handing over hard cold cash for something that’s not legal and gambling with your investment dollars. Perhaps you’re trying to figure out if you can even make it legal and what it’s going to cost.

6  Important things you’ll need to know, do or get

1) What is the current City of Hamilton recognized use.

You’ll need to order a Zoning Verification Certificate. Two family: Cost: $111 and you get it in 10 days or $167 for express 2 day service. Three or Four Family: $227 & $344 respectively.

2) Do you qualify for a Section 19 Conversion?

  • Minimum lot size of 270 square meters or 2906 square feet.
  • Minimum unit size: 699 square feet
  • Parking: cannot use more than 50% of your front yard for parking even if it’s already being used as parking. Currently Hamilton requires 2.7m x 6 m for a parking spot. (8.85827 ft x 19.685 ft) 2 front parking spaces will require 17.7 feet. Since parking can only be 50% of front lawns, a property would  require a minimum of 35.4 feet frontage. Anything less will require Committee of Adjustment approval and that’s not a guaranteed process. (Toronto’s parking requirement is 2.6m x 5.6 (8.53 ft x 18.37 ft) meaning 2 front parking spaces would require a total of 17.06 feet. Under Toronto’s Zoning By-law, 2 parking spots on a 35′ lot would not require Committee of Adjustment approval)
  • Parking cannot be tandem. Rear parking is permitted.

3) Drawings showing the units you’re creating (or the unit(s) that are already there)

  • Architectural Drawings (may be required)
  • Floor plans for each floor
  • Structural Drawings (cross section/materials)
  • Electrical Drawings
  • HVAC Drawings
  • Survey or Plot Plan drawn to scale showing all structures and lot lines.

City of Hamilton : Understanding Building Permits and Zoning Verification Brochure

4) Obtain a Building Permit

If you’re lucky enough to meet all the requirements of a Section 19 conversion, you’ll be able to take all of your drawings and Building Permit Application to the Building Department at Hamilton City Hall. Tip: Save time by calling the Building Department in advance to set up an appointment.  If you do not meet ALL of the requirements for a Section 19 conversion, you will be directed to attempt to obtain a minor variance from the Committee of Adjustment. (note the key word here is “attempt”)

5) Patience, knowledge and money.

This is not a cheap, quick nor guaranteed process. Being super prepared and educated in the process can save time and money. Over the past year, the City of Hamilton has come a long way in providing information to property owners looking to legalize or create additional living units in their buildings.

6) Is it going to be worth it?

For the answer to this question, you’re best to consult a local Realtor® to find out if the expense incurred to create and/or attempt to legalize an additional unit will add the expected value to the property.



Question: What is a Habitable Room?


Hamilton Zoning By-Law definition (Page 2-34) : “Habitable Room means any room of a residential building or an institutional building, used or capable of being used by one or more persons for living, eating or sleeping, or as a kitchen serving a dwelling unit; but does not include a bathroom, water-closet compartment, laundry, serving or storage pantry, corridor or other space not for use frequently or during extended periods. (9451/61) (08-228) 

Hamilton Property Standards By-Law definition (Page 4) : “habitable room” means a bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, family room, recreation room, basement, bath or shower room, toilet room, laundry room and any other room or space in a dwelling or dwelling unit used for living, eating or sleeping

Question: How high does a basement have to be to get a building permit to create or legalize a “habitable” room?


Room heights are covered in the City of Hamilton Property Standards By-Law

OCCUPANCY STANDARDS for a Habitable Room: Section 34(2) Page 21

Height Requirements for Living room, dining room, kitchen & bedrooms

  • 1.9 meters (74.5”) over the required floor area and in any location that would normally be used as a means of egress; or
  • 2 meters (78”) over at least 50% of required floor area. Nothing under 1.4 m is considered in square footage measurements.

Question: Can you convert a “legal non-conforming two family home” into a “legal three family home” by adding a unit under Section 19?

Answer: The simple answer is “NO”. As a rule, a “non conforming use” does not have the requirements to be considered for “legal two family use” nor has it obtained legal two family status under Section 19. To continue with a legal non conforming use, there’s a requirement that the property owner is able to prove that the property has had been continuously used as the non-conforming use since it obtained the “legal non-conforming” status. In most cases in Hamilton, this will go back to the 1950’s.

The property is “legal non-conforming” for a reason. The City recognizes the fact that the property does not meet the Zoning By-law and have authorized its use at some point in history: lot size, parking and zoning are the most popular reasons why it never became a “legal two family”. Once you go to apply for a change of use to a three family home, you’ll need to meet all the requirements under the regular three family zoning in the current By-law and cannot use Section 19 for this type of conversion. The City will treat it as if it’s going from single family to three family use. At the end of the day, you may still have a hard time getting it converted to a “Legal two family home” under Section 19.  You should retain the services of a professional.


The assessment report from MPAC shows it as a duplex- does that not mean anything?


NO- it means absolutely nothing in the eyes of the City. MPAC assessment reports are simply what MPAC uses to determine what mill rate will be applied to the property. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make- home owners, buyers and real estate colleagues. The only way to find out the legal use of the property is by obtaining a Zoning Verification Certificate. 


What’s the worse thing that can happen to me if I own something that’s not legal?


If you own a property that is not in line with the City’s recognized use you can run into issues on more than one front. Tenants and neighbours may complain to the City about your property or you may get caught up in one of the neighbourhood blitzes that the City of Hamilton By-law Enforcement team conduct. If the City does not recognize the use, you’ll have a choice- either convert it back to the legal use, which may involve trying to evict a tenant, or try to convert it under Section 19. The City may proceed to take legal action against you for a Zoning By-law infraction.

Also, insurance companies and financial institutions are becoming a lot more concerned about the legal status of income properties.

 *****When asked about the implications of the April/15 By-law change allowing development of cellars, I received the following interpretation from the “Open for Business” department at City Hall.

“The result in the revisions are that basements and cellars are to be treated the same in the Hamilton zoning by-law and the Ontario Building Code will determine if a conversion is to be permitted.”

Something really sticks out here- the reference to the Ontario Building Code and not the City of Hamilton’s Building Code. In the case of ceiling heights, the Ontario Building Code is actually more stringent.


1. In April 2015, Hamilton City Council approved a zoning bylaw amendment whereby cellars and basements would be treated the same and the Ontario Building Code would be used to determine if a conversion is possible.  As a result, cellars may now be used in square footage calculations for living units subject to the ability to obtain a building permit. City of Hamilton Council Meeting

2. Section 19 Conversions- City of Hamilton Zoning By-Law– Page 306

Window requirements for bedrooms and other living areas fall under the Ontario Building Code. Following excerpt taken from Page 475 of the Ontario Building Code

Ceiling HeightsOntario Building Code– page 470

Donna Bacher, Broker, with Royal LePage State Realty Brokerage has been representing Buyers and Sellers in the Hamilton area since 1983. The information provided in this article is for information purposes only and should not be considered a legal opinion. Donna has been involved with the Hamilton Rental Licensing debate and affordable housing issues in the City of Hamilton since 2008. Even though all efforts have been made to make sure the information provided is accurate as of the date of this article, the writer does not guarantee that rules, policies and By-laws have not been changed by the City of Hamilton or Province of Ontario. If you are interested in creating additional units or legalizing existing units, please consult a Designer/Architect who is licensed in the City of Hamilton to explore your options.

Secondary Suite Requirements in Toronto

Illegal rental properties in Hamilton- Buyer Beware

Holding the Hot Potato- Illegal rental properties in Hamilton

Many years ago, the City started to investigate licensing rental units in the City of Hamilton. A couple years ago the City realized that there were going to be unintended consequences if they jumped too quickly into a licensing regime, primarily the loss of much needed affordable housing. It was realized that many units in the City were not compliant with zoning by-laws and had not been built with a permit. In September 2013 the REALTORS® Association of Hamilton-Burlington along with social housing agencies were successful in getting Rental Licensing “tabled” until stakeholders could participate in a Rental Licensing task force established by the City.

The Blue Team – Hamilton Zoning By-Law enforcement officers


At the same time the City tabled the Rental Licensing motion, they hired additional By-Law enforcement officers to blitz neighbourhoods in the City. With special training in communications and decked out in spiffy non-threatening blue golf shirts, By-Law officers are hot on the trail of property standards violations and zoning infractions. Pre September 2013, there were reports that By-Law officers were showing up in uniforms. Tenants described them as aggressive and threatening. Tenants now describe the new and improved “Blue Team” as nice, helpful and caring. The friendly, smiling Blue Team aka City of Hamilton By-Law Enforcement are in constant motion, leaving owners with fines, charges and orders to remove illegal units.

The Hot Potato

Remember that game where a group of people pass around a hot potato and whoever is left holding it when the music gets shut off is the looser? Illegal rental properties are no different. Buying an investment property should be financially rewarding-especially in an affordable city like Hamilton. The real profit on an income property containing illegal units is usually realized by the owner that created the illegal units. At that point it becomes a Hot Potato and the person holding onto it when the City comes calling is the looser. The Seller who sold the property as a legal duplex being sold as a 5 unit building has successfully passed the risk on. The Buyer who has purchased it thinking they can either continue as 5 units or easily change the use is the one assuming the risk. There’s also a good chance that the same MLS® listing information that attracted a Buyer to the property has also been read by the “Blue Team” over their morning coffee. Buyer beware.

Easy Conversion: NOT

About a month ago I received a call from “Bob”. He was interested in getting his 2 family home legalized under Section 19 of the Hamilton Zoning By-Law. I inspected the property and it met all the requirements- or so it seemed. During the rental licensing debate in 2013, we were told that owners “simply needed to get a building permit to change use”- that is to change from single family to two family. The key word here is “simply”. I decided that I would accompany Bob to the building department at City Hall to see how “simple” the process really was.

The City of Hamilton does not have a streamlined process in place to make adding a secondary unit under Section 19 easy. After 3 trips to City Hall and approximately 6 hours of time, we finally received “all” the information Bob needed to proceed. After a few more google searches, I discovered that the City does have their Building Permit application on their new website. City of Hamilton Permit to Build/Demolish

What you’ll need to fill out the application:

Building Permit requirements for “Conversion under Section 19- adding a secondary unit.”

Properties must satisfy minimum requirements under Section 19.

  • 699 square feet per unit (only above grade space and basements: anything that’s 50% above grade)
  • lot size of 270 square meters
  • one parking spot per unit and it cannot be tandem parking
  • parking cannot take up more than 50% of your front lawn- rear parking is allowed.

You will also need the following before you take your application to City Hall.

  • Zoning verification from the City of Hamilton   Order Zoning Verification Certificate online
  • The following drawings done by a Designer with a BCIN if you’re creating a two family, and an Architect if your property will end up having 3 or more units. i.e.) legal duplex adding an additional unit making it a legal triplex or legal triplex adding on an additional unit making it a legal 4-plex.
  1. Structural drawings (including cross sections)
  2. Mechanical drawings (showing HVAC system)
  3. Electrical drawings
  4. Plot plan to scale or recent survey showing parking, additions etc.
  5. You may also be advised that you need full architectural drawings- the Designer/Architect will guide you on this.

The drawings MUST indicate fire separations, drywall ratings and anything that you’ll be doing or is already there for the additional unit. There’s also the possibility that you’ll have to bring all of your units up to current code.

Once you have your drawings and after consultation with your Designer/Architect, you feel certain that you meet the requirements under Section 19, you can proceed to the Building Department and apply for a building permit.

The Cost

City of Hamilton Building Permit Costs/Fees

City of Hamilton-Minor Variance Application/Fee Schedule

Bob hasn’t completed the process, so I’m not sure what the cost of the drawings will be, but I can point you to a couple firms in the City that can assist you. If your property doesn’t meet all the criteria for a Section 19 conversion, you can always apply to the Committee of Adjustments for a special exception- however, there are absolutely no guarantees that the CoA will approve your application. You’re best to seek the advice of a Design/Architectural firm that is very familiar with obtaining building permits in Hamilton.

Lintack Architects Inc.

Nick DeFilippis of DeFilippis Design and Development in Stoney Creek at 905-643-2250.

What can you do?

Know what you’re buying! If you’ve already purchased a property and you’re looking to legalize your illegal rental unit(s), order a Zoning Verification Certificate and contact a Hamilton designer/architect first. It will save you a tremendous amount of time and money. It’s best that you take control and not wait for the City to stop by. Once the City determines that you’re in violation of the Zoning By-Law you may have additional fines/charges to deal with along with severe time limitations.

Buying an Investment Property in Hamilton- do your due diligence.

New from the City of Hamilton!

City of Hamilton Zoning Map

Just because the zoning permits your use, doesn’t mean the City recognizes the use. The above zoning map will simply tell you what your zoning is. You won’t know if the use of your property is legal until you obtain a Zoning Verification Certificate from the City. If you’re a Buyer, the Seller may already have one but if they don’t, make sure it’s part of conditions in your Offer.  Remember that when you’re purchasing an income property, you’re paying for the income the property is going to generate. It’s extremely important that you make sure that the income is secure. If you find out that the unit isn’t legal, you can make an informed decision factoring in the cost and/or likelihood of making it legal before you become the legal owner of a “hot potato”.

This is a section from a City of Hamilton zoning certificate. The property this certificate refers to was sold 4 times over the past 15 years as a 4-plex. The last owners ended up holding the potato. A year earlier, they paid fair market value based on the property being a 4-plex. It wasn’t until the By-Law officers showed up that the owners obtained a Zoning Verification Certificate.  Their worse fears were confirmed when it showed that the City recognized their 4-plex as a single family home. The property didn’t meet all the requirements for a Section 19 conversion and it was necessary to apply for and receive a minor variance to simply add “one” additional unit. After thousands of dollars in costs, the end result was a legal two family home producing $8000. less annual income.

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CMHC, the Province and Secondary Units

CMHC has recently announced that it’s loosening it requirements to obtain default mortgage insurance for 2 family homes. CMHC new initiatives


The Province

Ontario has mandated that all municipalities allow “secondary suites”, but there are issues in Hamilton that make things a bit more difficult. First, Hamilton Building Code is much more stringent than the Ontario Building Code, especially the  minimum square footage requirement for rental units in existing dwellings and ceiling heights in basements/cellars. In a City where hundreds of 400 square foot condo’s are being built, it’s hard to understand why the City is standing firm on its 699 square foot minimum for a secondary suite in a house- but that’s the way it is. Also, the City passed an amendment to the Zoning By-Law in the spring of 2015 allowing for development in “cellars” ( a space that is more than 50% below grade) . If this space qualifies for a building permit it can be used in the overall square footage calculations for some permits. The disappointing part is that the City of Hamilton Building Department is not recognizing this new change for Section 19 conversions.


The following is a sampling of issues my readers have experienced over the past couple of months. The names have been changed for privacy reasons. 

Bill: Tenant in an unauthorized triplex. Tenant on main floor called the City who sent the Blue Shirt brigade in. The owner is holding a hot potato. The current owner will now have to deal with landlord/tenant issues and making the building legal.

Joe & Hilda: Recently purchased a raised ranch in the lower City- had been a duplex for 30 years. The Blue Shirts arrived while on a blitz in the area and Joe and Hilda have now spent thousands of dollars getting their unit legalized on top of getting fined and taken to Court by the City for a Zoning By-Law infraction.

Uri and Anna- Torontonians who immigrated to Canada a couple of years ago. Purchased a property in Hamilton with 6 units. 4 in the main house and 2 in a coach house. After a visit from the Blitzing Blue Shirts, they were caught holding the hot potato. They had to vacate the coach house and reduce the main house to 2 units. Because the remaining tenants are protected by rent control, Uri and Anna cannot even increase the rent to cover the additional living space the remaining tenants have. Their potato was super hot!

Please don’t get pulled into the game. Yes, Hamilton offers great investment value but only if it’s legal or stands a chance of being legalized. Please remember, the City of Hamilton did not squash the idea of Rental Licensing, they simply tabled the idea until they could get their ducks in a row. The idea of Rental Licensing in Hamilton is still very much alive.

Related Links
Government Programs 

City of Hamilton Committee of Adjustment Application Form