A guide to signing leases and avoiding housing hiccups

Graphic by Will Huang

After meticulous research, investigations into unfortunate living experiences and personally managing to move into a new living situation every year of my four-year university-career, I have finally cracked the code. Listen up folks. Before you are the four rules of signing leases that will hopefully avoid epic screw-overs, financial detriment and shitty situations.

Why? Because the best way to fix a problem is to stop it from occurring.

Rule #1: Nothing is out of bounds during viewings

You’re stepping into an apartment unit to evaluate its livability. What are you looking for? What questions should you ask your potential future landlord? Is that stale smell in the air a red flag? What about the clanking in the pipes? Let’s get to the bottom of this crucial initial step.

Firstly, if you haven’t arranged a viewing, throw away your pens and get one going. Signing for an apartment unit or house you haven’t even seen is awfully similar to walking into a bear cave blindfolded, kicking up your legs and saying “here’s good.” Viewings are the most essential step for deciding whether or not a place is the right fit and, mostly, for making you aware of the problems that lease policies don’t mention.

“By the time I realized my room was the size of a small closet, my mattress was waiting for me on the floor,” said Dan Amar, fourth-year business administration student at Wilfrid Laurier University. His student housing horror story occurred in the 2014-15 school year.

“A few of my friends I had agreed to live with had checked out the house without me and they didn’t get a chance to look at all the rooms. I was in Paris at the time and we agreed on who would get what room based on a rough layout described to us by the landlord. I got the shitty end of the stick.”

Therein lies the first suggestion: always make sure every room is accounted for. Often, rooms are locked during viewings, making it difficult for room sizes to be properly scaled. This complicates situations when it comes to deciding who pays what out of the monthly fees.

If you’re wondering if your landlord always has the right to show you what you want to see, let’s evaluate some Ontario law.

According to section 26 (3) of the Residential Tendencies Act of Ontario, a landlord has the right to enter a rental unit without written notice to show the unit to prospective tenants between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., so long as there has been an agreement or notice of current tenancy termination. All rooms are permitted to be shown to potential tenants.

This debunks any potential misconception that some parts of viewings are out of bounds.

Run with this knowledge and see what needs to be seen before its too late. Nobody will hold it against you if you want to look over every inch of the place, flip every light switch or turn on every tap.

Amar’s problems didn’t end with a small room.

“There was a ton of stuff we didn’t notice,” explained Amar.

“There was a mould infestation on one of the walls, a laundry machine that didn’t work, leaking pipes and poor plumbing. It was not an ideal situation so we knew we had to get out of there.”

Little did he know, an unnoticed detail within the lease was about to further complicate the situation.

Rule #2: Know your resources when evaluating a lease

“Something that is often underutilized is the Students Rights Advisory Committee [SRAC],” said Colin Aitchison, vice president of University Affairs with the Students’ Union.

This committee offers students an opportunity to bring in their leases for review so they can be warned of potential red flags and any unforeseen policies before signing.

“We go through their leases to make sure there is no major violations of the residential tendency act. For example, we’ll let them know if they’re getting themselves into a two-year lease, or if hydro is not included.”

With that said, let’s jump back to Amar’s horror story.

“After the year was up, we all decided to find a new place because of all of the problems,” Amar explained.

Amar found an apartment a few streets down for a reasonable price.

“We quickly signed for the following year, pressured into doing so before the time was up. We didn’t know that the house we were currently living at was a two-year lease.”

Amar and his roommates were suddenly locked into two binding contracts. With each monthly fee costing around 600 dollars per month, they were suddenly thrown into a new world of student housing problems that went far beyond a closet-sized room.

I know it sounds obvious but its worth being said: always make sure leases are thoroughly evaluated, especially before signing a new one.

Using available resources such as SRAC will allow you to be more aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

“Especially for first-years who have never signed a lease, its always good to get a second opinion,” said Aitchison.

He went on to explain that no decision needs to be rushed. Promoters will often give you limited time offers, but a great deal isn’t worth it if you’re being blindsided into financial detriment.

“Take your time and avoid pressures to sign before you know what you’re signing. You never know what complications could arise,” Aitchison said.

“Unfortunately, we aren’t lawyers, but if legal actions need to be taken we will direct you towards the needed resources.”

Rule #3: Know where your money is going:

For a lot of students, this will be the first time they are signing a lease on their own. For many lease-virgins, parents will help cover expenses, but not everyone has the luxury of financial backing. Sometimes decisions to save money can ultimately cause you to lose more.

“It’s really important to look at your annual cost,” said Brock Currie, manager of Sage Condos.

“You need to think about how much you want to pay each year, not just the price per month.”

He went on to explain that students most commonly evaluate monthly fees. This could be a problem when year-long leases are not being considered.

Certain promotion deals can actually complicate lease agreements and trick students into believing they are paying less. For instance, if one deal claims you can get one or two months free if you sign on by a certain time, those months may only matter for a short-term lease.

Many first-year students, who are much smarter than myself, ideally try to find a living solution that will suffice for their time at school — saving the headaches of having to move into a new place at the start of every fall semester. So let’s do the math.

If you were offered two free months (in the first year) of a two-year lease that was regularly $700.00 per month, you would end up paying $7,000.00 in the first year. Whereas in the first year of a $600 per month lease you would end up paying a higher amount: $7,200.  If you only looked at the first year this would appear to be the better deal, however, in the second year that $700 per month lease would cost $8400 compared to $7,200 for the $600 per month lease. You would pay $15,400 for the $700 per month lease for the two years compared to $14,400 that the $600 per month lease costs. Over two years, you’d be paying an additional $1,200 for the $700 per month lease that had two months’ free rent.

Currie also explained that students have to consider who they are living with and be more prepared when searching for price ranges.

“There are a lot of people that show up and say, ‘I’m going to live with two people, or three people, or four people,’ but they haven’t even talked to any of those people. Make sure you have a game plan. Try and have a good idea of who you want to live with and how much each person is willing to pay.”

The average cost of hydro per month can also vary. If your apartment is heated with gas, your hydro bill will be significantly lower, whereas with electric heating, hydro bills can be pricey in the winter months. Also, some hydro companies bill monthly, while some bill bi-monthly. Approximately less than 30 per cent of housing options include hydro in the lease agreement.

It’s important to realize that some essentials that aren’t included in your contract can also take a big bite out of your bank account.

Laundry machines that aren’t functioning can result in weekly expensive loads elsewhere. A place that doesn’t include parking can mean paying big just to avoid parking tickets. Not knowing if your hot water is included can cause morning showers to become a little more limited. As students, you’ll also have to set up internet that will be split with your roommates. Being aware of costs and where your money is going is the best way to maintain control.

Rule #3: Consider requirements and communicate with the landlord

School is always going to be your major destination. So be sure to find a place that fits those requirements.

Consider the time it takes to walk to school. When it comes to finding a place to live, take the walk and time it on your phone. It’s also important to consider the proximity to bus stops and food locations.

However, beyond all this is the imperative need to communicate. Not only will communication and transparency help prevent problems from arising, they could also help manage problems that have already occurred.

“We explained our situation to our landlord. He hadn’t found any tenants since we never gave him notice about the termination of the second year we signed for,” Amar explained, wrapping up the conclusion of his story.

“He agreed to lower the prices on the monthly fee if we could find our own tenants to sublet. So that year, technically, we were renting two places: the old one that we managed to fill with sublets and the new apartment down the street.”

“It was an experience that really made me more cautious when looking at a lease.”

***

Always get the most out of housing tours and make sure no stone is left unturned. Review your contract meticulously and utilize resources such as the SRAC to give you another opinion and catch details you might’ve missed. Never feel pressured to sign and always be sure you know what you’re doing despite urges to save some money. Understand your own requirements and communicate with your landlord.

It’s not just a piece of paper; it’s an agreement that could be as simple as a roof over your head and as complicating as reading through the Residential Tendencies Act of Ontario in scurried desperation to avoid paying 1200 a month for two properties.

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