09/25/2019 10:59 EDT | Updated 09/27/2019 18:42 EDT

House Hunting Students Should Look Out For These 4 Things

Here are some tips on how to avoid living a housing horror story in Ontario.

TORONTO — Just after the winter semester had come to an end in 2016, Toluwalase Kayode, an international student from Nigeria, went in search of a second home here in Canada. He happened to find a $500 room for lease in Scarborough, Ont. and quickly signed a one-year room contract.   

Sometime during the agreement, Kayode said his landlord decided that the $500 would no longer cover the utilities; that would have to be paid separately. 

It’s simple math. Kayode would have to pay more each month — a price change not mentioned in the lease contract.

The 22-year-old, now a senior at The University of Toronto studying physics and astrophysics, contested this abrupt revision to his initial agreement by still only paying $500, resulting in his landlord threatening to seize his belongings and call the police. 

“It was his intention to scare me into giving him money, thinking I wasn’t knowledgeable about housing laws in Toronto because I was an international student.”

Osobe Waberi/University of Toronto Scarborough
Toluwalase Kayode is looking for student housing.

Benjamin Ries, a housing lawyer at the University of Toronto’s Downtown Legal Services clinic, says he’s heard all the horror stories. From students who move in and discover bed bugs or cockroach infestations, to students who paid thousands of dollars in deposits and never got their money back, all the way down to  students whose landlords used fraudulent eviction notices against them, potentially rendering some homeless. 

Two things every student housing case has in common are sketchy landlords and students who are unaware of their rights as tenants.

Ries gives us four tips that can save students in Ontario a lot of money ... and tears. 

Osobe Waberi
Benjamin Ries is a University of Toronto housing lawyer.

Tip #1: Find out who your landlord is

According to Ries, it is important to know if you’re dealing with the real owner or just someone authorized by the owner. What is their real name and address? You should be able to match up the owner to the house. In case anything were to go wrong, you should have someone you can hold accountable.

“As rental markets in places like Toronto get more competitive, more scammers seem to take advantage of people desperate to find a place to live,” Ries said. “Anyone can copy the photos from an old online rental advertisement and repost them, posing as the landlord, and asking for upfront payment. If you do not have the real name and address of the person you send money to, usually there is no legal way to get the money back.”

Also worth noting, Ries says students should be wary of landlords demanding more than first and last month’s rent as a deposit. Landlords are usually not allowed to collect more, but many landlords in today’s market “ignore that rule and demand four, six, or even twelve months of rent up front from tenants.”

Ries believes it is best not to send anyone money until you have met them and they have physically let you inside the space you are thinking about renting.

peterspiro via Getty Images
An students walks past an old college building at the University of Toronto.

Tip #2: See if you are covered by the RTA 

RTA stands for the Residential Tenancies Act, introduced in 2006.

This act gives most Ontario tenants a standard set of rights and protections, and they are easy to learn about through public resources. But here’s the catch: your rental housing situation may be exempt from the RTA, explains Ries. 

“If you have to share a kitchen or bathroom with the owner or a member of the owner’s family by renting just a bedroom inside their house, the RTA does not apply.” 

“If you pay rent to a roommate or housemate who is already a tenant, their name is on the lease agreement and yours is not, then the RTA probably does not apply to you.”

The dangers of this type of housing situation is that If the RTA does not apply to you, you do not get the benefit of rent control or security of tenure. If your roommate or landlord who lives with you increased the rent, you could not do much about it without the protection of the Landlord and Tenant Board, leaving you only with the option of moving out if you can’t make rent. 

However, Ries says this could be a blessing in disguise. 

“You can have an easier time leaving early which may be your preference, especially if you do not plan on staying for a whole year. RTA tenants are typically ‘locked in’ for the initial length of their lease agreement, unless they or the landlord can find a replacement tenant,” Ries said.

WATCH: U.S. college towns where landlords make the most off students. Story continues below.


Tip #3: Take a good look at your contract

If you’re covered under the RTA, is your landlord using the Ontario Standard Form Lease?

Ries says most landlords in Ontario are now required by law to use a lease agreement published by the government, which clearly explains your rights as well as theirs. If your landlord refuses to use the standard form lease, that might be a warning sign that they are not aware of their legal obligations — so proceed with caution. 

Tip #4: Who will your roommates be?

A common practice among students is signing a lease with other tenants to save money during the school year.

Ries says that before you sign a lease of that kind, it’s important to keep in mind that you are in some ways becoming “legally responsible for each other”. Which means if one of the joint tenants does not pay their share of the rent, you could be on the hook for it. If one roommate invites over a guest and that guest causes damage to the building or house, you could be on the hook for that, too.

In some other cases, Ries says if any of you want to move out, it is much easier if you all move out together. When one joint tenant wants to leave and another joint tenant wants to stay, things get very complicated from a legal perspective.

“Make sure you know your roommates well enough, trust them, and discuss the future with them before agreeing to sign a lease together as joint tenants. Otherwise, if you have the option, you might want to choose an arrangement where only one or two of you are tenant(s) on the lease (“head tenant(s)”) and the rest are just roommates or “occupants” not covered by the RTA,” Ries said.