Building to Rent


Some homeowners consider converting their basement into a rental unit. Often as a source of additional income or to accommodate a live-in situation for a family member. Keep in mind that in rental you assume the responsibilities of a landlord and as such are required by law to make provision for certain fire and safety requirements.

This article is intended to help provide a general understanding of these requirements. As these requirements vary from one region (Municipality) to the other, you must contact your local building department for the specific requirements in your area. Learn more tips on building to rent at :

Designated Occupancy
Building codes categorize buildings according to the type of occupancy they are intended to provide. For example, a detached home in a residential neighborhood would be categorized as a single family dwelling. A rental apartment building would be defined as a multiple family dwelling. Although we will only be discussing two types, there are categories for commercial, manufacturing, public and institutional type of buildings.

A building’s assigned category determines, within the building code, a wide range of construction and use requirements that establish minimum standards for structural integrity, fire resistance, sound resistance, ventilation, room size, lighting, electrical, plumbing, etc.. As you can most likely conclude, these minimum standards will become more stringent for a building designated as multi-family occupancy versus a single family occupancy. When converting your basement for use as a rental unit, you will also be changing your single family occupancy designation to a multi-family occupancy, and therefore you are required to meet the standards for this type of occupancy.

Some Major Requirements
Although this article is only intended to provide a general understanding of your requirements, we will attempt to highlight some of the major items that you will need to take into consideration.

Structural – as the rental unit will be in the basement it is unlikely that any major structural issues will be involved.

Fire Resistance and Separation – This will require compliance. A basement occupancy must be separated from your occupancy and any common use areas. For example, a shared laundry room and/or the furnace room will require wall(s) and floors(ceilings) constructed to resist the passage of flame, smoke and heat for a minimum designated period of time. There will also be fire resistance requirements for any door that is part of the separating wall.

Sound Resistance – This will require compliance. There are minimum standards to construct the separating walls and floors(ceilings) to resist sound transmission from one occupancy to the other.

Entrances & Exits – This will require compliance. There must be a means to enter/exit each occupancy without the need to travel through any other occupancy. As such a separate entrance to your basement will most likely be required.

Electrical – This will require compliance. Codes require that from within each occupancy there must be a means to disconnect the power to all electrical circuits servicing that unit. Therefore, a separate circuit breaker panel will need to be installed within the basement apartment. Also, as your basement will be considered a finished area, you are required to provide a minimum number of electrical outlets and light fixtures for each room and appropriate electrical services for the stove, fridge, small appliances, etc..

Rooms – This will require compliance. All finished rooms such as bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, etc. must be constructed to minimum dimensions. The bathroom will be required to have a vanity sink, toilet and tub/shower, an exhaust fan will also be required.

Ventilation – This will require compliance. Consideration must be given to provide separate control within each occupancy for heating and fresh air ventilation. Fresh air ventilation can usually be obtained through an operable window. Heating will depend upon your current heating system. For example, with electric heating individual baseboard heaters can be utilized, however if your heating system is a ducted forced air type you may have to provide for individual control dampers to permit air flow to be independently regulated to each area.

Safety – This will require compliance. Separate smoke detectors are required for each occupancy and there may also be requirements for carbon monoxide detectors.

Once again we must emphasize that the above is to assist in developing a general understanding of some of the issues involved in finishing a basement for rental purposes. You must check for the specific requirements in your area.

Seems to Complicated!
At first glance, these requirements may appear overwhelming, however, many of these requirements can be met without the need for elaborate construction techniques or astronomical costs. For example, let’s assume you were going to finish your basement regardless of whether or not it will be rented. In most circumstances the fire ratings for walls and floor(ceilings) may be attainable by using a fire rated gypsum board product instead of standard gypsum board. Sound requirements could most likely be met by incorporating a fiberglass or mineral wool insulation within the wall and floor ceiling stud/joist cavities. The electrical requirement might be met by locating a sub-panel in the finished basement area and heating could be provided by electric baseboard heaters. Remember smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are relatively inexpensive and you should have these installed regardless of any rental consideration.

For most the more expensive element will be meeting the entrance/exit requirements. In basements this usually means a side or backyard on or below grade entrance. Expect to pay $6,000 – $10,000 depending on complexity and design.

Another area where complexity could increase is with a ducted forced air heating system. Automated control dampers may not be ideal or a practical solution, however you could remove the duct work servicing the basement and install electric baseboard heaters instead.

Talk to Your Building Department
You will most likely find that your local building department will have information pamphlets or booklets that specifically outline the requirements for your area. For homeowners many building departments have a separate residential service group to help answer your questions. You may also find information on your local building department website, check out resources to see if they are listed.