Signing a Lease? Better Know Your Rights

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Written by Josh Dehaas

I thought I had found the perfect lease. My house was brand spanking new. It was an eight month lease since it wouldn't be fully built until August - perfect for me since I wasn’t planning to work in Guelph that summer. It included all new appliances, a huge master bedroom with ensuite bathroom and was only a few minutes from the bus. At $350 a month, it seemed too good to be true.

Two weeks into September I came home from campus in the afternoon and saw a tiny pair of black shoes placed neatly beside the door. I thought perhaps my roommate Adam had sweet-talked some nice young lady into coming over for tea. But if you knew Adam, you'd understand why I felt suspicious.

Turns out I had new roommate, Mei, who had moved into the attic on the third floor. The attic was supposed to be our main living room, but not anymore. I stood there in disbelief that my landlord had decided to rent our attic out to Mei after we had signed a lease for the entire house. Our seemingly too good to be true house was in fact - too good to be true.

Admittedly, it could have been a lot worse. Mei was a fantastic cook, regularly stuffing me full of Malaysian delicacies. She was also a marketing student like I was and we talked all about business and school over cups of Milo, a Malaysian malt-chocolate drink she would make. But it was still an injustice that I didn’t want my landlord to get away with.

My first few calls to Sarb were to no avail. I finally caught him by calling from a different phone number and telling his assistant that I was a client. He knew what he had done was wrong and he thought he could get away with it.

Armed with information from the Neighbourhood Relations Office (now a part of Off-Campus Living), I knew how to fight this monster. Apparently, they explained, he had breached his contract (ya really?), he was breaking a bylaw by leasing the house to more than three unrelated people without a license (didn’t know that one) and the attic was not legally lease-able as a room, since it had no locking entrance. Mei moved out about mid-October and I breathed a sigh of relief. But things weren’t over.

Early November, around ten pm on a Friday night I heard an angry knock on my door. A stranger in glasses is standing there, "turn down your music, some of us have to work in the morning!" he barked. Shocked yet again, I slammed the door on my new roommate. Sarb had allowed yet another stranger to move into our house. While he turned out to be a nice guy, the main reason I picked my roommates so carefully was because I wanted to crank my speakers on Friday nights. I didn’t want to have to tippie-toe around my own room because some stranger upstairs works at six am!

It was now down and dirty landlord-tenant war. Luckily, a letter outlining the above complaints threatened Sarb enough that he got rid of our friend upstairs and agreed not to lease the house to anyone else for the entire next six months. The information I got with the help of Neighbourhood Relations was enough to help me outline my case and resolved the issue. Not only that, but I learned a valuable lesson about renting – if a lease seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I sat down with Kathryn Hofer, the manager of the Off Campus Living Office, (located on the third floor of the U.C.) and asked her a few questions about what to look for when looking for housing. Here’s what she said:

What is the price range for student accommodation in Guelph?

We have a chart on our website that’s up to date Off Campus Living but usually $350 to $450 (per month) is what the majority of our listings are. The high end is $475 like at Edinburgh Village [an apartment complex on Edinburgh Road] and you can sometimes find as low as $325, but whether that rate is good all depends on if utilities are included or not.

How much deposit can a landlord ask for when you sign a lease?

The landlord can legally ask for last month’s rent... They can ask for a key deposit, but they have to return that at the end of the lease when you return the key. Anything else, like a damage deposit, is illegal. These rules apply to leases that are covered under the Residential Tenancy Act of Ontario leases where you are living in a house where your landlord – or a relative of the landlord - is not sharing a kitchen or bathroom with you.

What are some warning signs that a student should look out for when trying to determine whether or not their landlord will live up to their end of the agreement?

When looking for a place, the more eager a landlord is to sign or to get commitment without really giving you a chance to read over the lease or having you go away and look at other properties for comparisons, the more wary I would be right off the bat.

Once a tenant is looking for a place, I think some of the main warning signs are: difficulty getting contact information including phone number, e-mail and mailing address, or getting access to the lease. Also, if you’re looking and you’re not getting to see the entire property, or you’re looking in a building where there are several units and you don’t get to see the unit that you’d be in, that’s of concern. If you’re not seeing [the unit you’d actually be living in] there may be a reason the landlord’s not showing you. There may be something to hide.

What are some resources available to help students determine if their lease is sound?

They can bring in copies [of their unsigned or signed lease] to Off-Campus Living here on the third floor and any of the staff here could take a look at it in comparison to the Residential Tenancy Act. And also, we have sample leases http://www.studentlife.uoguelph.ca/neighbourhood/Tenant-LandlordToolbox.cfm online that people can look at. The other resources on campus: You can always connect with the Legal Resources Room on the second floor of the U.C. and the CSA Local Affairs Commissioner ( ) on the second floor as well.

On the city level, if you have a concern about something really specific in the lease, you can always call the local legal clinic in and talk to them over the phone.

And if you have a tenancy that’s covered by the Residential Tenancy Act of Ontario, they have a 1-800 number that you can call any time. [That’s the Landlord and Tenant Board: 1-888-332-3234.] So, if you’re reviewing a lease and you have a question about a specific point, you call during business hours and they’ll answer your question right away.

What are some of the basic inalienable rights that a tenant has in Ontario?

The biggest one is getting a copy of your lease.

One that students may not be aware of is that you’re not required to provide post-dated cheques...

You don’t have to pay a damage deposit only the last month’s rent.

A landlord needs to provide 24 hour written notice of entry, but they can enter for an emergency, say there’s a pipe that’s burst and they’re aware of it, they can come in. But generally if they just want to come in, like for general maintenance, they need to provide notice. If they’ve hired a maintenance company they still need to provide notice.

Students should also consider a house-mate agreement or at least having a conversation with their housemate before moving in. Often around Thanksgiving and exam time when stress is high we see a heightened number of students coming in about conflicts with their housemates over differing life-styles, differing agreements over who is paying what, and how to solve their disputes.

Are there any sample house-mate agreements on the website?

There are, yes. And there are also sample sublet agreements

Anything else you’d like to add?

Something that comes up a lot this time a year is that landlords want to know whether or not tenants are staying, because it’s the time when first year students are looking off-campus. But a student who is considering moving out only needs to give sixty days notice. So if their lease ends at the end of April the landlord may ask [the tenant] in January, but the tenant doesn’t have to tell them for certain until March 1st.

In addition, a lease never expires. So if a student has a twelve-month lease and they want to continue living there, they don’t have to sign a new lease, they can just continue living there and the lease automatically turns into a month-to-month lease, which is great for co-op students, cause if you know you’re going to be moving out in January, you don’t have to make a commitment for the full twelve months again.

Last, if students have any legal questions, housemate questions or any other questions while looking for housing, they can e-mail us at and we’d be happy to help.

Want to know more? Check out Off-Campus Living’s info sessions happening this Tuesday, January 29, at 5:30 in LA Fireplace Lounge and Wednesday, January 30, 5:30 in the East Fireplace Lounge.

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