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Garden homes sprouting up to ease rental-housing shortage

Several capital region municipalities are making it a little easier to build garden suites
Madonna Blunt in front of the garden suite she built for her mother-in-law in the Quadra and Tattersall area in Saanich. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Madonna Blunt was so excited to finally be able to build a house for her mother-in-law in her Saanich backyard that she headed to town hall on the first day the municipality handed out applications for garden suites in October 2020.

Twenty months later, her new garden home is almost ready for occupancy, with only paving and a fence left to complete. She would have finished sooner if she hadn’t applied for a height variance, she said.

And Blunt, a real estate appraiser by profession, has some advice for others going down the same path: If you want to save time, stick to the municipality’s design guidelines. “There was a lot of back and forth with the municipality. It was a learning process.”

The 700-square-foot, one-bedroom-with-den house will be the primary residence for her mother-in-law, who is currently living in a self-contained suite in the six-bedroom house she and her husband share with their daughter near Quadra Street and Tattersall Drive in Saanich.

The eventual plan is for Blunt and her husband to move into the garden suite after their daughter leaves home.

Since Saanich launched its garden-suite program in 2020, it has received 103 applications. Of those, 50 have been approved, it says. In a one-year review of the program presented to Saanich council that included feedback from residents, the municipality said many property owners are expressing interest in converting existing accessory buildings into garden suites. In the first year of the program, 10 of 67 applications received were to convert existing buildings.

In terms of variances requested, the most common involved siting, followed by an increase in floor area and decreases in rear lot coverage.

Saanich is among an increasing number of municipalities in Greater Victoria allowing homeowners to construct detached homes in their backyards for long-term rentals or as in-law accommodation, to help alleviate the housing crunch.

The list of municipalities that have approved or are considering garden suites includes Victoria, Sidney, North Saanich, Metchosin, Langford, Esquimalt, Colwood and Central Saanich.

The City of Victoria was among the first to allow the practice, in 2004, when it accepted applications to rezone properties to permit the construction. In the first 13 years, there was an average of two applications a year. When the process was eased in 2017, applications jumped to about 22 per year.

Depending on the municipality and the size of the property, a homeowner can build between a 400- and 1,000-square-foot house with a maximum of two bedrooms.

Nick Kardum, president of Backyard Bungalows, said Saanich is his biggest market by far, with 20 to 25 builds at various stages of construction. “They want to see them built and have made it easier.”

He said the size of the house largely depends on the lot, and mostly they are built for family members, especially adult children. “Some are living in the basement and can’t move out because of sky-high rents. Others are getting divorced and moving back home because they can’t afford anything out there,” said Kardum, whose construction company only does small home builds.

The average house is around 600 square feet with one bedroom, and costs $150,000 to $275,000.

Blunt, who did not want to reveal the total cost of her build, said she served as her own general contractor and still went over-budget 15 to 20 per cent. “The perimeter drainage alone cost $9,950 and we had to source the materials from three places. I had budgeted the slab on grade foundation on a sloped site to cost $11,000 and it ended up being $28,000. My landscaping bill will be nearly $40,000.”

Saanich council is debating a number of proposed changes to the program to address key issues, including allowing garden suites in side and front yards; expanding the geographic areas where they are allowed; adding a map in the zoning bylaw to show areas where garden suites are permitted; expanding approval authority for garden-suite development permits; and improving clarity and enhancing the efficiency of the process.

Kardum said homebuyers are taking note of the program, ­basing their real-estate buying decisions in part on the ­possibility that the property could accommodate a garden suite.

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