What I Learned About Renting While Living in Canada

by Ruth Collings

When I moved halfway across the country to go to university at 17 it was my first time being away from my parents for more than a week. This was definitely not a problem; I had been focused on “getting out” for years. Unfortunately for me, my parents had no idea what they were doing, and neither did I. I’ve now lived in five different apartments of varying degrees of crappiness in three different Canadian cities with 10 different people. I would like to share with you some themes of my experience in the rental housing market, namely all the basic ways you can hopefully avoid similarly crappy experiences as much as possible.

1. Look at the place before you sign the lease.

And I mean you, physically, enter the space and look at it. Do not trust anyone else to do this for you because they will not be the ones living in it when it turns out there was a mouse nest under the sink. Between signing a lease sight unseen and having someone else look at the place for you, at least get somebody who has looked at apartments in the past and give them a clear checklist of things to look for (see below).

2. Do not trust the property owner, the housing agent, or the building manager. They are not on your side.

Read your local Housing Act and know your rights. You are going to have to read every single word of your lease before signing it and plan on negotiating any parts you don’t like. Even if it feels like you desperately need this place no matter what, at least ask questions like, “What if I get a pet in six months?” or “Are you planning on selling the building soon?” You need to stand up for yourself when it comes to housing laws like receiving a written notice 24 hours before entrance to the property, because otherwise the management will walk all over you.

3. Document everything.

Did you nick the paint on the fridge with a knife? You better hope you took a photo before and after because certain people will use that to take away your damage deposit. Take all the photos with the date-time feature on and keep them somewhere safe. Get everything in writing, signed, and dated. One of my landlords was probably illiterate and definitely an alcoholic, but I made him sign my shit anyway. Good things to document: when you move in, any damages or flaws, any changes to your lease, renewal/termination of your lease, and any agreements made with roommates related to money.

4. Be an awesome tenant (and roommate)

Despite what you may think, tenants have certain responsibilities too. If you observe your side of the bargain, even if everything else goes wrong it won’t fall on you to take the blame. This means reporting any damages or malfunctions to the property manager as soon as you find them. Submitting your lease renewal before the legal deadline. Not getting a pet when your lease bans pets (and your housing law permits landlords to ban pets). This does not mean providing free labor for the property owner, letting them visit or tour prospective renters without notice, or pay bills that aren’t included in your lease.

5. Roommates shouldn’t be an afterthought

If you are the kind of person who needs lots of “me” time in silence and seclusion, you’re going to have a rough time with any roommate. Living with bad roommates can be hellish. This is a big deal decision, so treat it like you’re interviewing someone for a job. Make a list of qualities you want and don’t want, decide on how chores and bills will be handled, and find out what their average day looks like. If you do end up with the kind of person who steals and hoards your dishes in their room, deal with it right away, in person. This is scary as hell (especially if you’re a woman and the offender is male), but dealing with something immediately and face-to-face removes any excuses the offender may have when you ultimately kick them out after finding out they were leaving their bedroom window open in the middle of winter.

As a bonus, here’s a checklist of places to look for damages on a property before you sign the lease. Some of these are my own, some are a rental agent’s tips. You might feel weird being in someone’s home and looking through all their stuff, but be brazen. This is literally a life-changing decision you’re making.

Entrance
• Does the door shut and seal properly?
• State of the floor around the door (water damage?)
• Peephole?
• Bolt?
• Chain?

Bathroom
• Around the base of the toilet
• Under the sink
• Around the taps
• Tiles in the bathroom (spongey? mouldy?)
• Air circulation/fan
• Door lock

Kitchen
• Around the sink
• Inside the drain
• Underneath the sink
• Behind the stove/fridge

Bedroom
• Where do the windows face? (ie, can anybody see you from the window)
• Are you facing a parking lot or the street?
• Who are your immediate neighbours? Can you hear any screaming babies?
• Can you hear people in the hallway from the bedroom?
• How are you going to have to fit your bed in?
• Where is the heater/fan/vent?

Living room/dining room/lounge
• Power outlets are where?
• What direction do these windows face?
• Do the windows open?
• What kind of lighting is there already, natural or otherwise?

General
• Windows, do they seal or are there breezes?
• Confirm what appliances will be there when you move in.
• Look behind pictures and furniture for wall damage (seriously).
• Check windowsills for mould.
• What temperature do they usually keep the house at?
• What type of heat/aircon is it?
• How much is a typical electrical/water bill?
• Who provides cable/internet to the building?
• Any water damage, anywhere

Ruth Collings is a professional techy librarian in Toronto who really, really hopes she doesn’t have to do another trans-continental move for a while.

Photo: Robert Ashworth

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