Toronto Renter Beware: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid Getting Screwed

In my life, I’ve moved a lot.

I was born in Alabama and grew up in Dallas before relocating to this far colder climate with my parents (Canadian winters really aren’t my thing, FYI). Once here, we hopped from Brampton, to Newmarket — then I took off to University in London, ON, and have since moved 5 times. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from all that geographical shuffling of my life, it’s this: Moving sucks.

Nothing makes you realize just how much crap you own like attempting to neatly package your entire life into boxes and a rented U-Haul. And the physical labour that goes into taking apart, moving and re-assembling all that Ikea furniture you own? That’s generally a back injury (and a slew of foul words) waiting to happen.

But before we even get to the physical move, comes the part that can (at times) be even more frustrating: finding a new place to rent. With an increasingly competitive rental market and the looming pressure of an impending move-out date, it’s easy to find ourselves in a state of panic while attempting to find a new home. Combine that panic with any confusion in regards to what a standard lease agreement should include in Toronto (what is legal and what is bullsh*t?), and we can find ourselves in some pretty murky water.

Luckily, I’ve taken my experience surviving (multiple) moves in Toronto and advice from local real estate experts to put together a comprehensive list of what you need to know to ensure you aren’t being taken advantage of:

1. “Security Deposits” — Beware

Believe it or not, the only security deposit your landlord can legally collect is your first and last month of rent or, in the case of condo buildings, a key/fob deposit which usually doesn’t exceed $50. If your potential landlord tries to add an additional deposit into your lease agreement, consider this a red-flag and ask what the deposit is for, as this is technically against the Tenant Act (so you have every right to dispute/refuse that deposit).

And while we’re on the topic of deposits, “damage” or “cleaning” deposits are also technically illegal. Landlords are not to use your rent deposit to pay for damages, cleaning etc.

2. Co-Tenancy Agreements

Sure, in a perfect world, roommates never run into issues with each other. However, our world isn’t perfect and when it comes to harmonious cohabitation with friends or strangers, anything can happen. To be safe, it’s often a good idea to use a Co-Tenancy Agreement if you are renting a property with one or more people. This agreement helps you to avoid misunderstandings by specifying which things each roommate is responsible for (think of this as a prenup for roommates).

renter-toronto3. The Bed Bug Registry is Your Friend

I didn’t realize this until move #2 downtown, but Toronto has no shortage of critter issues (cockroaches, bed bugs etc.) in older apartment buildings. This may sound like no big deal, but a rampant bed bug infestation in your building can kind of ruin your life — seriously, I’ve had friends go through this ordeal. Nothing adds insult to injury like having to constantly evacuate and spray your apartment or replace furniture on top of your hefty monthly rent.

Fortunately, this is why the Toronto Bed Bug Registry exists. If you are considering moving into an apartment building, google the address and see what comes up on the registry about the building’s reputation. Not only will you get the inside scoop on any bug problems, but former tenants also often comment on the Superintendents, location, resident vibe and more — which can be incredibly valuable information before locking into a lease agreement.

4. Rent Receipts

If requested, your landlord is obligated to provide a receipt for any payment that you make — Don’t be afraid to ask.

5. Application Fees

I’m moving this month, and upon looking at a potential apartment a few weeks ago, the property broker informed my friend and I that we would need to pay a $500 fee just to have our application processed/considered. We felt this was unusual, so I did some research once we left and confirmed that this is not a standard (or legal) request within the rental application process.

Of course, the rental market is at times very competitive and in the effort to get yourself to the front of the pack of potential applicants, you may feel motivated to agree to unusual terms/requests, but it’s important to only agree to terms that you are truly comfortable with and that you always know your rights. Trust your gut — if it sounds like a sketchy request, it probably is one.

6. The “12 Month Rule”

Your landlord cannot increase your rent until at least twelve months have passed since either the day your rental unit was first rented to you, or since your last rent increase. Furthermore, your landlord cannot legally increase your rent without giving you at least 90 days written notice.

7. Rent Control

According to NOW Magazine, as of May 30th, 2017, rent control has been expanded to most private units in Canada. This means that (with some exceptions), the maximum amount your landlord can increase your rent is the amount set by Ontario’s Rent Increase Guideline. 

renter-toronto8. It’s Not Real Unless it’s in Writing

As you go back and forth with your potential landlord to agree on a lease agreement, remember to get every adjustment added into the contract in writing. Basically, you cannot protect yourself unless it’s documented. So if there is any existing damage to the unit that will not be addressed before you move in, document it. If you’ve asked permission to customize (paint, hang items etc.), document it. If you are allowed pets, document it. In a rental scenario, the details of your lease act as your legal lifeline and assurance.

9. Not All Lease Agreements are Made Equal

Many landlords may just find and utilize a generic lease agreement they’ve found online (since most agreements are based off a similar template) but remember that language and clauses can vary between contracts. David Adams notes that these generic agreements can spell disaster and may omit special provisions like extensions, move-in and move-out dates, and damage limits.

Always make sure the agreement explicitly states the address of the unit, the name of the landlord, contact information for the landlord and maintenance personnel, deposit and rent amounts, and expected utilities.

10. Know Your Clauses

As a renter, the inclusion of a severability clause is always a good idea. This protects you by keeping the rental contract intact, even if one (or more) parts turn out to be illegal or unenforceable. Basically, if you’ve signed the lease agreement and later realize that a component of it was total crap that needs to be removed or altered, those changes can be made without the rest of the contract falling apart.

Additionally, keep an eye out for any unusual clauses that may have snuck their way into the contract. For example, landlords are required to provide maintenance, so any clause that says otherwise should be disputed. If you plan to sub-lease the unit, make sure this clause is documented as well.

11. Eviction Notice

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember: you cannot be evicted from your unit unless the rental contract has been breached.

On this note, you cannot legally stop paying your rent in the event of a maintenance or repair problem (such as rodents etc.). There are resources available to walk you through the safest way to pursue legal action against your landlord if they refuse to address the problems, but always pay your rent on time to avoid eviction.