Property maintenance: what are your legal responsibilities?

A boarded up home. Stock photo by Getty Images

Can you leave a property vacant and rotting if you keep paying your property taxes?

That’s what Toronto resident George Hill has done for the last 30 years. He couldn’t bear to live in his childhood home after his mother died, but didn’t sell it off, so the deteriorating, boarded-up house sits and rots.

The neighbours hate it, especially the ones who share the semi-detached structure. The house is a haunt for wild animals and the occasional squatter.

However, neither the neighbours nor the city can do much about it. Hill pays the taxes and the many municipal fines he’s racked up as the house falls apart.

Considering the multitude of municipal bylaws on property maintenance, it’s likely cost a fortune for the retiree.

Each municipality has its own bylaws and codes, but there are many standard requirements for property owners. The specifics vary from place to place, but here are some typical property maintenance laws sampled from across the country.

General aesthetics: bylaws often require you keep your house in decent shape. Vancouver bylaw 4548, or the “Untidy Premises Bylaw” says properties should be in a “neat and tidy condition in keeping with a reasonable standard of maintenance in the neighbourhood.”

Dangerous premises: aside from keeping your land tidy, you have to eliminate potential health or safety hazards around. Moncton, N.B.’s Dangerous or Unsightly Premises bylaw says you must remove ashes, automobile or other machine parts, trash and “junk” which could pose such threats.

Landscaping: you’re not required to keep a pristine lawn, but there are limits to how weedy and overgrown your lawn can be. Toronto requires property owners to cut grass and weeds taller than 20 centimetres.

Snow and ice: homeowners should clear driveways and walkways of any snow and ice within a certain time frame. Charlottetown bylaws say you better be shoveling and salting within four hours after a snowfall stops.

Drainage: Property must be properly graded to allow proper water drainage and landowners can’t block or interfere existing drainage systems. Regina also says your roof drainage can’t be directed onto public walkways or adjacent properties.

Address signage: your house must be identifiable by street number, and even the signage dimensions could be regulated by law. Whitehorse demands address signs affixed either on the building or on a freestanding sign. In either case, the sign can be no bigger than 0.25 square metres.

Graffitti: especially apt for a basically abandoned house frequented by squatters. Property owners can be penalized for applying graffiti or failing to remove it. Calgary imposes a $150 fine for failing to remove, cover or somehow block graffiti from view (and it’ll cost you $5,000 if you apply it yourself).

As we said, that’s just a sampling. Many more bylaws exist, that could cover pesticides, fencing, lighting, parking and so on. Be sure to check your local laws and avoid frustrating fines.

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