As a lawyer representing both tenants and landlords over the last 17 or so years there are certain comments made by both tenants and landlords that have become a "typical refrain". "If I only knew" is something that I've heard both tenants and landlords say as they are dealing with a nightmare tenancy. What is unfortunate is that the signs or hints of the nightmare tenancy were there and obvious even before the tenancy began. "If only" the tenant had asked the right questions! So that being said, what things should a tenant be looking for when looking for Apartments for Rent?
In no particular order, I'll share with you a some of the things that I think every tenant should do when looking for a new apartment. Not each of these suggestions will be possible in every circumstance but they should get you thinking.
1) Reputation, Reputation, Reputation. Landlords have reputations just like regular people do. Doing a walkthrough in an available apartment doesn't tell you what dealing with this landlord is going to be like. What happens if a pipe breaks, maintenance needs to be done or repairs effected? Are you presuming that the landlord will be responsive to your calls---or just hoping that it will be a positive experience? Better than hoping, it is worth your while to investigate your landlord's reputation. Google searches (why not!?), google the landlords name and see what comes up, look up the landlord under news, google the street address, google the street. If you get a lot of search results with criminal investigations, police attendances, or references to your landlord in a less than positive light you may wish to re-consider renting from this landlord.
How about, when attending to look at the rental unit, you take a moment to ask the rental agent some of the hard questions about how the landlord responds to tenant complaints, work orders, response time to requests, unit turnover (i.e. home many tenants move in and out of this building on a regular basis). If the opportunity allows and you see people who live in the building take a look at them, speak to them, and see what kind of response you get. Better yet, try to engage them in a longer conversation and ask them what they think about the landlord. Ask those tenants what their experience has been like in renting their apartments from this landlord. Ask them how long they've been in the building, are people happy living there, what is the turnover like.
Approaching existing tenants and speaking with them may feel like an odd thing to do. Nevertheless, I encourage tenants to do it as these conversations will tell you an awful lot about your "new" building. These people will be your new neighbours. How they react, what they say, and how they are, should be rather insightful for you. More than anything else, it is these people who will have the greatest effect on whether you have quiet enjoyment of your rental unit or whether you have endless sleepless nights. So, talk to them before it is too late.
2) Another odd kind of question, and information to seek, is to investigate how often the building has pest control issues and how often the building has bed-bug infestations. In my utterly un-scientific method and relying solely on anecdotal stories and my gut, my experience is that the amount of pest control needed in a building tells you a lot about the landlord and about the tenants who reside in the building. While not conclusive, a high rate of repeated infestations can be an indication that the building has a high number of transient tenants who are bringing bedbugs into the building through used and discarded household items. This information tells you the "kind" of building that you are moving into and that you may expect to have odd and likely negative social experiences with other tenants in the building.
3) Cash please! Does your new landlord demand payment in a way that makes it hard to prove that you've paid your rent? Are you being asked for a security deposit besides the last month's rent deposit? Is the landlord demanding post-dated cheques and not making it optional? Does the landlord impose late payment fees, interest on rent arrears, a missed rent penalty, a very high bounced cheque penalty? Each of these things is illegal, in whole or in part. If your landlord is prepared to set terms and conditions of the tenancy that are against the Residential Tenancies Act you should take this as a warning that this landlord may not be too concerned about your rights under the law and how comfortable you are in your new home.
4) Check the condition of the building---not just your apartment! Countless times I have heard tenants complain that the landlord fails to maintain the their apartment. The story usually goes that the landlord had promised--at the time of signing the lease---to sand the floors, paint the walls, fix the cupboards, fix the mold/mildew/yucky shower surround, replace some screens, fix broken window latches, replace the door locks, shampoo the rugs, fix the stove or fridge. The excuse for why these things are not repaired at the time of viewing the apartment is that the former tenant just moved out, that the landlord's maintenance crew will be in the unit soon, and that there is nothing to worry about as all the work will be done by the time you move in. That the work often isn't done is an understatement.
In the best case, your landlord will attend to the repairs, maintenance requests in the weeks following your move into the unit. It will likely be a nuisance as you will be getting 24 hour notices of entry and have contractors in your unit (or worse "Mr. Fix It" landlord himself) while you are trying to settle in and live. In the worst case, you will find yourself "living with" the non-repair and simply dealing with the situation because your maintenance/repair requests don't get answered.
Certainly, the Residential Tenancies Act gives you options on how to get your landlord to make repairs. How you do this is detailed in other articles in this blog. Also, you can always use the property standards department of your City or town to order the landlord to make repairs. However, the point here is not whether you can get the work done by forcing the landlord but whether you want the hassle of a "slummy" landlord to begin with.
Is it reasonable that the vacant apartment you are looking at hasn't been prepared for a new tenant? How long has it been vacant? Does the landlord not have the money to do the work in a timely manner? The answers to these questions can be a warning sign. Then, take a look around the whole building. How are the common areas of the complex maintained. Are the floors clean? Are lightbulbs burnt out? Is there garbage in the hallways? Are the nooks and crannys crammed with junk? What does the building entrance look like? Are the walls washed, painted, and clean? Is there garbage outside on the property? Is the lawn cut, the walk shovelled, the parking lot clean and parking spots marked? What does the garbage room look like (like a tornado hit it?). Is it apparent that the landlord has rules for garbage, guest parking, and storage? Do you get a sense that it is a bit of a free for all in the building--for example are people padlocking bikes to fire-escapes?
Hopefully you understand my point that the condition of the whole building--of the things that you can see--is a reflection of the landlord's commitment to cleanliness, maintenance, and order. In my view, when renting an apartment you need to find a landlord whose standards for the building match your expectations. If your prospective landlord is indifferent to maintenance standards that you consider a bare minimum----and you can literally see evidence of that indifference in how the whole building is operated, you can not reasonably expect that the landlord will do anything to maintain the inside your unit to an acceptable standard.
5) THE LEASE The lease document itself is often evidence of the kind of landlord you are renting from. Though it is usually not possible until after you sign it, if you can get a copy of the lease at the beginning of the rental process and see what terms the landlord is inserting you can get a very good sense about your landlord and what it is going to be like living in the building. In Ontario, there are strict limitations on what a landlord may demand in a lease. To that end, there are fairly standard form leases and standard clauses that are acceptable under the law. Has your landlord drafted his/her own lease? Do the clauses strike you as draconian? Are there strange clauses or things that just don't seem quite right (i.e. you have to get permission to have guests?) If circumstances permit, review the landlord's lease or get a copy of it to think about before you sign it. If in reviewing it you have questions consider calling a lawyer or licences paralegal to review the lease terms. Again, the point here is that a landlord who is prepared to offer a lease that contains illegal terms is likely to not be concerned about your legal rights, your comforts and your happiness in renting the apartment.
Finding a decent apartment is a serious job in an of itself. Not all landlords are the same and in fact they range from the meticulous serving the luxury tenant to the slumlord who only cares about a rent cheque even as the building is collapsing around the tenants. You need to think about where on this spectrum you want to be and of course where on this spectrum you can afford to be. The Residential Tenancies Act imposes the same legal requirements on all landlords but it is simply not realistic to expect the same level of service from all landlords. The amount of rent that you are paying, or are being asked to pay, is not necessarily a reflection of the service that you can expect. Even the slumlord will charge luxury prices if he finds a willing tenant.
In this article I haven't mentioned searches of on-line registries, case-law reviews, going to local organizations that deal with tenant issues, as there is a level of investigation that become impractical. However, if you've read this far and you have suggestions of other things that you have done to vet a new landlord I'd be happy to get an email from you so I can update this article (I'll even give you credit!).
Michael K. E. Thiele
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Apartments for Rent: What Tenants should look for.
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