Secondary Dwelling Units: Split-Level Homes

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of secondary suites and why they’re surging in popularity in Ontario. Today, we’re going to get a little more specific and talk about building a secondary suite inside a split-level home.

First, let’s talk about what a split-level home is. A split-level home is a style of house where the levels are staggered and split by half-flights of stairs. Typically, they have two or three levels, with the bottom level being partially underground. This deviation from traditional home design leads to unique and open floorplans.

Split-level homes have an appeal to certain demographics, but overall, their popularity is on the decline.

Benefits of building a secondary suite in a split-level home in Ontario

1. There's not a lot of competition

The primary reason we want to talk about split-level secondary suites is because there’s a lot of potential for investors. And the reason there’s potential is because—as we alluded to before—they aren’t very popular. Right now, they’re a kind of hidden gem. Their popularity has declined because: 

  • Their curb appeal isn’t as good as a bungalow
  • They’re not suitable for “aging in place” due to stairs
  • There’s an abundant supply which has led to a “buyer’s market”

So, the first benefit is that there’s not a lot of competition. This means you can typically get them for less than something like a bungalow. If the house is cheaper, though, and if they're harder to sell, why would you want to buy it? 

The reason is that while split-levels may lack an appeal to home buyers, to renters, they have a lot of appeal. So, if you’re looking to purchase a home with the intention of turning it into rental units, split-level homes are very valuable. 

Why are split-level homes more appealing to renters?

2. Sunlight

There are many by-laws and regulations that affect the layout of secondary suites. One important regulation is mandating an independent kitchen and living area; this regulation often forces landlords to split their units by storey—one unit on the main floor, the other in the basement. While this is clean and easy, the basement unit isn’t going to get a lot of sunlight.

However, the design of split-level homes often allows for part of each unit to have space on the main floor. This means that both units have access to big main-floor windows and can enjoy their breakfast in the sunlight.

Image: She Shoots 3D Tours

3. Feels like a more independent space

It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re in someone else’s house when you have a basement apartment, and the whole reason for moving out on your own is to gain some independence.

There are many ways to divide a split-level home, but that decision will be unique to each home. Typically, the decision is between splitting “vertically” and “horizontally.” Both have their benefits, but a vertical split is going to make each unit feel much more independent, like a duplex. But no matter how you choose to divide the units, a split-level home is going to feel much more personal than a traditional home.

4. Less expensive to buy

One reason split-level homes tend to be harder to sell or sell for a cheaper price is because this style of home was very popular in the 1950s. As the owners of those homes aged, many wished to move to single-storey houses, so many of these houses have come onto the market at the same time.

The reason they wanted to move is because single-storey homes like bungalows don’t have stairs. As we mentioned in a previous article about how to “age in place,” stairs are best avoided if possible as they can be both a hazard and an obstacle for elderly people.

Image: She Shoots 3D Tours

5. More spacious basement

While by-law regulates the minimum requirements for the height of a basement ceiling, another advantage split-level homes have is a more spacious basement. Higher ceilings also help you shake the feeling that you’re renting a cave.

6. Easier on landlords

So, we’ve now covered why renters find split-level homes attractive, but what are some direct benefits you, as a landlord, will enjoy?

As we mentioned, they can often be purchased for cheaper than a traditional home, so that’s an easy benefit. The money saved there can go toward the renovations needed to build the secondary unit.

Since split-level homes can provide amenities others cannot—like main floor access—you can charge higher rent.

Split-level homes also make it possible to separate the electrical, plumbing, and heating, making it much easier to track each unit’s usage and bill accordingly.

Challenges of building a secondary suite in a split-level home in Ontario

The only real downside to building secondary suites in a split-level home is the challenge of installing plumbing. This will be the most restrictive part of construction and will often dictate how the unit will be split.

Each home will have its own challenges when it comes to plumbing, so it’s important to look at the home and get a consultation before purchasing.

Want to learn more about secondary suite? Check out these articles:

Ready to build your secondary dwelling unit?

If you’re ready for your consultation, or you’re not sure exactly where to start, we would love to discuss your options!