Renter's Guide

How to protect yourself as a tenant

To be a good tenant with a great landlord you first need to learn your rights. We'll walk you through the basics of how to protect yourself as a tenant
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Whether you’re a first-time renter or an experienced tenant, there are probably many tenant’s rights and responsibilities you have that you didn’t know of or didn’t realize apply to you. The importance of protecting yourself before entering any rental agreement or lease with a landlord is always relevant regardless of what is happening in the Canadian rental marketplace. But when vacancy rates really drop and supply becomes slim, knowing how to protect yourself as a tenant is of paramount importance — this includes things like knowing your rights as a renter or even securing tenant insurance.

In 2017, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) statistics showed a 2.7% increase in the cost to rent coast to coast. In December 2019, Rentals.ca and Bullpen Research & Consulting released their analysis of rental rates over the last two years.

According to Rentals.ca listings data, the average rent for Canadian properties in November of 2019 was $1,918 per month, a decrease of 1.1% monthly, but an increase of 9.4% annually. The median rental rate was $1,850 per month in November, up 15.6% from a year earlier ($1,600).

That doesn’t sound like a lot until you see what that does to your budget. For instance, if you rent a unit for $1,200 a month at the start of your one-year lease, you could face a $32.40 monthly rental increase. By year three (assuming no other changes), you’d be paying almost $100 more in rent each month for the same unit.

If your plan is to rent, even for a short while, then spend some time learning your rights and responsibilities as a tenant.

What can a landlord charge during the rental application process?

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The rental application process can be stressful and overwhelming — even for veteran tenants. The best places — great amenities, responsible landlord and good value rent — usually attract stiff competition, with some units getting into rental rate bidding wars.

The key to a satisfying life as a tenant is to find a great unit and a great landlord. “Anybody can be a landlord,” says Toronto-based paralegal, Dan McIntyre. However, McIntyre stresses that “there are right ways of doing it and wrong ways of doing it.”

During your rental application process, landlords may only ask you certain personal questions in order to assess your qualifications as a tenant but understanding how to protect yourself as a tenant can maintain certain privacy boundaries. For instance, a landlord may ask for proof of income or ask you to submit a credit report. This is the landlord’s way of making sure you have the means to pay rent and that you’re responsible enough to use that money for rent. A landlord may also who else will occupy the unit — including pets, kids and extended family members — and they may ask you to provide professional and personal references, including former landlords.

However, the landlord cannot ask you to pay an application fee. Nor can they ask you about your sexual orientation, what religion you practice or your family status. “If the questions feel too personal,” says McIntyre, consider it a red flag and “walk away.”

Spotting discrimination and using your legal tenant rights?

It is essential as a renter to understand your provincial tenant rights as well as the Canada-wide human rights. For instance, across Canada, it is illegal to refuse a tenant based on race, colour, ancestry, where you were born, religious beliefs, gender, physical or mental ability, marital or family status, the source of income, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. That means, as soon as a rental unit is open to the public, a landlord must provide an opportunity for every individual without discriminating against any category of person.

Judy Feng, a staff lawyer for the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA), describes discrimination as an unjust practice that has an adverse effect on an individual or group. “A landlord has a right to refuse to someone, but a landlord cannot discriminate,” said Feng.

Although each province qualifies what constitutes tenant discrimination slightly differently, virtually all jurisdictions are relatively consistent in protecting an individual’s rights based on gender, age, colour, ethnicity, disability, social assistance and family status. Age, however, is typically not a protected right, which means a landlord can refuse to rent to a person based on age in most parts of Canada.

To view your provincial or territorial human rights or to file a complaint if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) website.

The landlord wants you as a tenant, now what should you expect?

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If a landlord or property management company offers you a rental unit, after you complete the application process, then it’s time to sign a lease. But don’t be surprised if each lease you encounter, during your time as a tenant, looks a little different. Not every province has standardized contracts for renters or landlords to sign. In fact, in all provinces and territories except for B.C., Nova Scotia and Yukon, a lease is not mandatory at all. In Saskatchewan, a lease is only required if the tenancy exceeds three months.

Still, in most places in Canada, signing a lease is quite common. Signing a lease agreement makes this contractual relationship legal and binds both landlord and tenants to their agreed-upon and legally mandated rights and responsibilities. That’s a good thing.

Before signing a lease, make sure you thoroughly review the document and ask questions before signing the document. McIntyre says a common complaint he hears from tenants is that they have been asked to sign a commercial lease rather than a residential lease — a big mistake as commercial leases will put more responsibility on the tenant for maintenance and utilities than a residential lease. “It’s so important to be thoughtful when reviewing this document,” says McIntyre.

Your lease should contain information about the length of tenancy, deposits and fees, maintenance, pet refusal or acceptance and any other restrictions. According to CMHC, most provinces allow landlords to ask tenants for a security deposit. However, in Ontario and New Brunswick, landlords may only ask for a rental deposit and cannot use this deposit to cover property damages. In Quebec, landlords cannot ask for any form of collateral.

How should your landlord communicate changes with you?

If a landlord wants to make significant changes during your time as a tenant, such as an increase in rent or termination of service, then the landlord must communicate the proposed change through a written notice. Surprisingly an email or text does not constitute “written notice.” As McIntyre explains, “emails have their place, but cannot be used to send legal notices.”

Even with written notice, any change proposed by the landlord must comply with provincial laws. For instance, if a landlord plans to increase your rent, they cannot exceed the annual maximum rental rate increase that’s stipulated by each province. Also, any change communicated by a written notice must give the tenant 90 days warning. During this time, the tenant may choose to accept the change (no moving and continue being a tenant), fight and stay (take the issue up with the Landlord and Tenant Board) or break the lease (without penalty) and move.

As a renter, it’s integral that you learn how to protect yourself as a tenant and understand your contractual obligations. For more details or information review the CMHC fact sheets for each province or territory.

Alyssa Davies
Alyssa Davies

Alyssa is an award-winning personal finance blogger and founder of MixedUpMoney.com. She writes about being a mom, overcoming personal debts, and how to get away with affording your ridiculously expensive latte habit. A new homeowner, Alyssa brings her real-life knowledge of the Canadian real estate market and smart money matters to this growing brand.

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