The backyard building boom

More homeowners are building living spaces right outside their back doors, from work-from-home offices with mini home theatres to tiny homes for aging parents. 

Created for Scotiabank

Though they bought their home five years before Toronto approved its laneway suite bylaw, Christina and Jack Leonetti had big ideas for building on their property. “Jack and I both have backgrounds in construction so we had a lot of awareness of the bylaws and plans that were coming up. We knew the change to allow people to build suites in their yards could be a possibility,” says Christina. 

“You always think about one day needing to accommodate a shared space with your parents or other life changes that come your way. So when we were house hunting, we knew if we found the right property, we could use it that way,” she says. 

The couple looked at more than 120 properties before finding a home near Bloor and Dovercourt that checked all the boxes for the apartment they hoped to one day build—a two-storey unit that’s a garage on the ground floor and a fully equipped 540-square-foot studio suite up top. When the city amended its zoning rules in 2018 to allow for laneway suites, they “instantly went into building mode,” hiring architect Marco Vieira at Epic Designs to draft their dream project and Pine Hill Homes to build it. 

“After we had the concept designed and figured out what it would cost, we met with our financial adviser. We already had a Scotia Total Equity® Plan with a mortgage and a ScotiaLine Personal Line of Credit so it was simple to move our equity over to the line of credit to fund our renovation plans,” says Jack. 

The Leonettis’ laneway suite Photography by James C. Lee

The couple had built up equity from paying down their mortgage and they transferred this to the line of credit on their account to cover the cost of building the suite. When construction was done and the Leonettis understood the final costs, they converted a portion of the line of credit into a fixed-rate mortgage, which allowed them to get a better rate in the long run. 

Now that the house is complete, the couple is excited to put it to use. “If we want to get out of the house, we can take the kids there for a movie night or a sleepover. Game nights, entertaining. It’s a great space that we’ve built for us to be able to enjoy, to our standards, exactly how we wanted it.” 

Going the DIY route can be satisfying, too. Just ask Ewa and Dave Jackson, who built a 100-square-foot office—complete with bar fridge, fireplace, two desks and swivelling wall-mounted computer monitors—and an upstairs hangout area with a movie projector for their 10-year-old daughter. 

“Pre-pandemic, we always thought it would be nice to have an extra room that could be used for hanging out,” says Ewa. “When the pandemic hit, that quickly morphed into ‘uh-oh, we don’t have a place for someone to do school and two people to do work in an East York semi.’” 

The notion of building someday turned into today, and Dave and a friend—both of whom Ewa describes as “super handy”—broke ground within weeks of the first lockdown. “We were saving money on not parking downtown and not driving and buying lunch. We thought, why not take that money we weren’t spending and use it to build?” 

The Jacksons’ backyard office

Dave quickly found a set of oversized windows going for a steal on Kijiji, and based the design around them. He worked on weekends and whenever he could find time. “It was our sourdough,” jokes Ewa. The build was completed by June 2020, just in time to provide the Jacksons with extra child-care space after summer camps were cancelled. Two years later, Ewa says the novelty and pride haven’t worn off. 

“We constantly turn to each other and say, ‘Wow, this space is amazing,’” Ewa says. “It turned a corner of our backyard where our dog used to poop into something that’s made it possible to stay in our house and enjoy working from home. My office always had a work-from-home policy even before the pandemic, but I never did it because I didn’t think I could be productive. This has changed my entire outlook.” 

Interior designer Julie Taylor knew the benefits of a backyard build and says that she and her partner jumped at the opportunity. “I love that we can do this,” she says of their laneway suite in Riverdale, a project they started in 2020. She adds that she’s seeing similar units pop up throughout her neighbourhood. 

Built in the footprint of a dilapidated garage the homeowners tore down, Taylor’s laneway suite is 500 square feet and sits atop a new garage. She says that versatility was top of mind when building. “We like the flexibility it provides as an in-law suite for aging parents or other family needs.” 

Finding a mortgage that offers flexibility means that backyard builds and renos of all kinds can become a reality without the stress of refinancing or applying for a loan. The Scotia Total Equity® Plan (STEP) is a flexible borrowing program that is tied to the equity in your home. As you pay off your mortgage, it can allow you to re-allocate your gained equity to other mortgages, with different structures if you wish, or lines of credit that can be used toward renovations and more.*  Learn more about how to make your mortgage work harder for you.


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* Subject to meeting Scotiabank’s standard credit criteria residential mortgage standards and maximum permitted loan amounts. A new application may be required to add or change products under the STEP in some circumstances and if you request a change to the credit limits of your products, you may be asked to provide updated information and/or submit a new application. In some cases, a new mortgage registration may be required. The borrowing limit for revolving credit products is 65% of the value of the property. Not all mortgage solutions may be eligible to be included as part of STEP. Additional restrictions and conditions may apply.