Owned Duplex not legal. Opinions

19 Replies

Hello everyone. This is my first post and I'm looking forward to hearing any suggestions.  My husband and I have owned a duplex in Peterborough Ontario for 5 years and recently it has come to light that it may be zoned single family. We were told when purchasing that it was a legal non-conforming duplex. We would like to make it a legal duplex but are unsure of how to find out how to do so without opening a can of worms and potentially being shut down.  Where would I find this information? Is there a way to find out of it is for sure a legal non-conforming?

 Also, we are wanting to get started on house flipping as we did this with our previous home and made a good profit. So we have been thinking that if all else fails with keeping the duplex as a duplex we could turn it into a fully renovated single family and sell as it's in a spectacular neighbourhood.    

We are very open to any ideas and suggestions that people may have as we are going crazy wondering what the best route is to take.  

  Thank you for your time!

@Charlotte Adams

In no way I know anything about Canadian real estate and applicable law but I have experience in getting SFH zoned as a duplex in Philadelphia, PA.

It was a long process but I did everything myself. I was simply following the rooles that are posted on the city website. To shorten the story and summarize: I had to apply for the city zoning board hearing. Poste notes at the property so neighbors can see it and attend the hearing. Mail out letters to about 160 home owners in the couple blocks radius about the hearing. Set up meeting with local community organization to get it approved by them before going to the ZBA hearing. I had to take pictures and make professional looking plans of the building. I was approved in local community hearing. They provided me with an approval letter. With all that I went to the ZBA hearing, none of the neighbors showed up to protest, so I had approved the use of the property as a duplex, even though the zoning is not permitting duplexes. The whole process took about 4-5 months. Hope this helps and gives you some ideas. 

I'm sure you can find local attorneys who can either guide you or do the whole thing for you. 

You would have to hire a real estate attorney to verify that it is a legal non-conforming duplex.  Essentially it means that it was a duplex prior to some restrictions put in place that would prevent it from being a duplex currently if built new.  It basically means that you are grandfathered in and the structure can remain a duplex as long as it is treated as a duplex.  if you change it to or use it as a single family then after a period of time, you will lose the option to use it as a duplex, you will lose your grandfather privilege.  so if you want to keep it a duplex and that is the highest and best use, just keep it as a duplex

Originally posted by @Yuriy Skripnichenko :

@Charlotte Adams

In no way I know anything about Canadian real estate and applicable law but I have experience in getting SFH zoned as a duplex in Philadelphia, PA.

It was a long process but I did everything myself. I was simply following the rooles that are posted on the city website. To shorten the story and summarize: I had to apply for the city zoning board hearing. Poste notes at the property so neighbors can see it and attend the hearing. Mail out letters to about 160 home owners in the couple blocks radius about the hearing. Set up meeting with local community organization to get it approved by them before going to the ZBA hearing. I had to take pictures and make professional looking plans of the building. I was approved in local community hearing. They provided me with an approval letter. With all that I went to the ZBA hearing, none of the neighbors showed up to protest, so I had approved the use of the property as a duplex, even though the zoning is not permitting duplexes. The whole process took about 4-5 months. Hope this helps and gives you some ideas. 

I'm sure you can find local attorneys who can either guide you or do the whole thing for you. 

 Have you hired a professional to draw a building plan? We have the same problem.  The way you explained it sounds copmlicated and scary.

@Yuriy Skripnichenko

It does sound a bit complicated but if all the steps are follow it should be fairly simple and easy. What was you total cost about with drawing plans, mailing, etc.

I have a number of single family homes in Phila that are cash flowing but I would like to turn them into duplex as soon as the tenants leave. Would you know can you apply to the board while people are still in the property?

Hello Charlotte, it’s a completely different
jurisdiction but I have several similar
properties in my portfolio and can tell you what the process is here and perhaps you can inquire locally since it’s probably similar.

Here there are many multi-family buildings that were originally built as such decades ago. However over the years zoning has changed and now making some of these multi-family dwellings “legal non-conforming.” They are grandfathered in and allowed to remain; you do not need to go through the process of changing the zoning. But if you own a single unit and wanted to divide into multi-unit you wouldn’t be allowed to do that. Also if you owned a single unit that used to be a 2-unit but it was converted into a single unit (at some point) and you want to make it a 2-unit again they probably won’t let you change it back to a 2-unit. Once it’s on file as a single unit you lose the grandfathered use.

You call or visit your zoning office and ask them. You should be able to find out for free.

Good luck!

You have to dig a little to answer two questions.

(1) The history of zoning code for that particular area. When was the SFH zone imposed, was it always that way? In many cases the zoning department have older versions of code books or maps that may help find that answers. Depending on the city, sometimes the people in the building department may not be that helpful, they would tell you the "current code" and shut you down before you dig. Need to kind of do it with gloved hands. If you are in a city that has been incorporated multiple times, was part of unincorporated in 1969, then incorporated into this city in 1975, then was unincorporated again in 1983, then finally incorporated into another city in 1990...you might have to visit various jurisdictions and look up their archives.

(2) After you have determined when the zoning of SFH was put in place, you then need to determine what year your house was built, and whether it was originally SFH or converted later. If it was converted later, what year was the conversion and whether that timeline was prior to the SFH zone. One time I had to prove to a city's zoning official that my duplex has always been a duplex. The zoning is designated SFH or duplex, the tax records showed duplex, but the building codes varies depending on whether it's SFH or duplex or multi>4. So they wanted me to prove that it's always been a duplex. I had to round up all kinds of evidence like power company records (showing two meters and two addresses to bill), testimonials from neighbors who have been there a long time indicating there has always been "TWO FRONT DOORS", county property tax records showing how it has always been billed, floor plans showing back to back kitchens on either side of the kitchen wall, and pictures in the attic showing the common DWV for both is in cast iron which was typical back in the days of original construction, as well as two electrical panels and showing pictures of EMT conduits coming up from both in the attic indicating again the wiring was done back in the days when EMT was common practice. Also talk to previous owners.

I don't know I would ask the city straight out if your duplex is legal non-conforming.  If it turns out to be illegal, they may have no choice but to take action.

@Lana Lee

I did everything myself, including the paln drawings. It is not as comlicated as it may sound. You just need to folloow the instructions and hope that non of the neighbors will contest. Feel free to reach out to me if you have more questions. I also would recommend to go to a ZBA hearing to see how it usually works. 

@Al Pekerman

I did drawings myself. 

Here is the expenses that I had:

$25 zoning application 

$18 coffee for local ZBA hearing 

$125 zoning appeal (you get denied after your initial application and have to appeal)

$98 stamps for letters

$100 zoning permit

Total 4 months and $366

You can not apply if you have people in the building. It has to be vacant. Also if you already have rental license for single family that will make things more complicated. You should show hardship for you to keep this property as SFR. Read the rooles at the city website. Feel free to reach out to me if you have more questions.

@Charlotte Adams

You've received a lot of advise here, some of which might be excessive or premature for your situation.  Sam's advice is probably the best at this stage of things.

It is quite possible your duplex is legal non-conforming, it will all depend on when Peterborough set the current zoning for the area.  If the building operated as a duplex before more restrictive (or any) zoning was brought into the area (in some smaller towns/cities, zoning may not be more than 40yrs old) and this can be demonstrated, you can ask the City for a Zoning Confirmation Letter to make it all official.

How is the property listed in the land registry ... as a House and Lot or as a Two Family (two unit) building?

Or you can do as many folks and continue on business as usual and not worry about it. ;-)

Hi Charlotte,

I'm not in Peterborough, so I can't say what their specs are, however, my suggestion would be first to check out the City's website to see if they list their specs for what's allowed. I'm fairly certain City of Quinte West has everything on their website, whereas Belleville has almost zero information on their website so you may get lucky and get the info from there. Also, have you talked to your Real Estate agent? They should be able to tell you what it was when you purchased the property. I'm assuming this is an up and down with one unit in the basement? 

If you can't figure it out on your own or from you agent, and since you're interested in trying to make it legal, I would say your next step would be just to call the city. I would suggest this anyways so that at least you know where things stand. You do of course run the risk of them coming in and shutting it down, but in situations such as these I always like to ask myself how things would come across if there was an injury or loss of life and I ended up going to trial. 

My boyfriend house hacked and put a basement apartment in his house in Belleville, where this is not allowed. He had everything fully inspected and signed off on, but was able to think out of the box a bit and figure out a few work around's for some of the things that the inspector requested.  

Good luck!

Who told you it was a legal non conforming when you purchased. If it was your lawyer then you have nothing to be concerned about. If it was not legal and permitted or legal non conforming your lawyer would have told you and advised you not to purchase.

Hello everyone!! Thank you so much for your time to respond to my questions. As Brianne Chard mentioned, I am a major play it safe person and I couldn't imagine it coming to light after an injury.   I wish to do things properly that way, however I feel comfortable moving forward with it as a legal non-conforming verses trying to make it legal. 
The real estate agent can only track it back as far as MLS exists which takes me back to it being a duplex in 1994. I have been in contact with the city and they are giving me the run around to tell me what year the zoning laws were imposed. Its a second floor two bedroom (whos tenant has been there for 15 years and pays almost $500 below market value, but she is blind with no family and if I evict her she will have no where to live until low income housing takes her in, hence why she is still there and causing us a lot of headache with moving forward) and a main floor one bedroom with a partially finished basement.

    I am waiting also on a call back from the lawyer that did the deal.  Something has to come to light soon!  

  Thanks again for sharing your expertise with a newbie!    
     

Well!! We had good news.  Mid 1900's the NDP passed bill 120 back in the 1900s and that has enabled our duplex to be grandfathered in!! 

   Amazing to have this off my shoulders! Now to figure out refinancing it to purchase another :D:D  I'm hooked!

I would bet the selling price of a Duplex would far exceed the price of a SFH especially if it's in a SFH neighborhood.

I wouldn't be to anxious to convert back to a SFH.

You could have a POT of GOLD

Deanna you may be right. That is what my realtor says.  We won't be turning to single family anymore. It was the plan if it came up not legal non-conforming but now the plan is keep, slightly update, refinance and hopefully have enough equity to purchase a flipper!  Fingers are crossed. We now need to start looking for that special house to flip!

Congrats on working it out! I have a similar problem I've been kicking down the road, there was a discrepancy between how many units the city and and county had for the property. Ugh. 

What I do know is, at least here, you need to lawyer up for this stuff. The city is very reluctant to increase units in a building, that's a slumlord move. And not just any lawyer, a zoning bar specialist. Your average closing attorney knows NOTHING about this stuff.  If you look at the zoning court agendas you see mostly the same few names handling the cases.

Hi Charlotte,

A little late on my input but I am currently going through a similar situation. I recently bought a duplex in Kingston, Ontario. While going through my due diligence, I called the cities zoning department to see what they have the property recognized as and they said they have it zoned as a single family. They were unaware that it was being used as a duplex.  Thankfully, the seller was able to prove it was used as a duplex since before 1995 and we were able to grandfather it in provided we bring it up to fire code (which isn't a big deal since it's a complete renno anyways).  This was very important to have the recognition as the numbers didn't work as well as a single family home.

Hi Brian!! This is exactly our situation.  We have it grandfathered in :)  GREAT!!!   Nice to meet you, seeing as you are so close to us :D

Create Lasting Wealth Through Real Estate

Join the millions of people achieving financial freedom through the power of real estate investing

Start here