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Cottage Q&A: Part-time principal residences and permit-less buildings

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This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

If I sold my home, could I make my seasonal cottage my principal residence if I stay there for half of the year and rent somewhere else for the other half of the year?

—Half-Homeless

Sure. The fact that you’re renting—and living at, we assume—another place for six months is no conflict. The Canada Revenue Agency says that to qualify for the principal residence designation in a particular year, a cottage (or mobile home, houseboat, or condo, for that matter) must be “ordinarily inhabited” during that year, even if it’s only for a short period of time. What counts as short?

“Most practitioners interpret this to mean that a seasonal residence can qualify if the person stays at that residence for at least some period of time during the year,” says Karen Slezak, a tax partner with Crowe Soberman in Toronto. Half of the year certainly qualifies; less would qualify too. “People think that their principal residence has to be where they spend the most time,” says Slezak. “That’s not correct.”

Is there a statute of limitations on buildings that are put up without a permit?

—Permit Perplexed

Yes and no. Building codes and building bylaws are enforced by municipalities, local building officials, or the authorities having jurisdiction in your cottage area. These folks are the ones who could order you to change, move, or take down a non-complying, permit-less structure— usually, it’s their call. “I would never accept a building put up without a permit,” says Steve Walker, the building inspector for the Columbia Shuswap Regional District in B.C. “I would pursue the issue to the full extent. Even if it were 10 years old.” He points out that this wouldn’t apply in an area that didn’t require permits at the time of the build. Such a structure would be grandfathered (although any new changes would have to comply with the current rules).

Jim Sangster, the recently retired chief building official for Ontario’s Township of North Kawartha, says that, quite often, non-complying buildings go up in the fall. “People think we won’t notice,” he says. Violations—additions, new accessory buildings—come to light when cottagers try to sell. Sangster says that it’s usually zoning violations that force cottagers to move, change, or take down a building. “If it doesn’t comply with zoning, we don’t even worry about permits,” he says. “Even a shed needs to comply with zoning bylaws.”

That said, building without a permit is potentially an offence under the legislation that enforces the building code for your province. And, yes, these acts can have limitation periods. Examples: there’s a three-year statute of limitations for prosecution of offences under the Alberta Safety Codes Act; Ontario’s Building Code Act, on the other hand, carries a one-year limitation period.

But, as Conrad Spezowka of Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing explains, “the one-year limitation period does not necessarily apply to the ability of a chief building official or inspector to issue an order to comply with the BCA and the building code.” Translation: you may not be charged with an offence, but you’ll still have to bring your building up to code.

Before you build, call your building department. It’ll probably save you some hassle and frustration later.

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