When rent is not an opera, but a tragic comedy

We are moving. Again. This is the second time in one year. Our problems started three weeks before my boyfriend and I moved in to our current apartment. Our landlords, a husband and wife couple, had promised us that by June 1st there would be a bathroom on our floor and a wall separating our apartment from the ones above and below us. However in the weeks leading up to moving day, they were impossible to get ahold of. I'd phone, the phone would ring. Ring some more. I'd leave a message. Another message. This went on for some time, and to no surprise, when we did hear back (dangerously close to our supposed moving date), it was only to be informed that the apartment would not be ready on time. A foretelling start. Impending doom was hovering. So we moved in a month late. Things could be worse. Unfortunately, within hours thing actually did get worse. The "renovations" that the landlords had promised were not finished. There was no bathroom on the main floor, but instead one in the basement (where in winter our toes on the icy floor are like tongues stuck to a metal pole, and I swear the whole room was built specifically to ventilate the entire street's sewage ducts). Neither had the walls been built which divided our apartment from the basement neighbours'. Next the landlords cut the phone cord in half. After that six weeks of pandemonium ensued as the electricity unexpectedly and sporadically turned off whenever it liked. Not only did our fridge shut off every time the power went out, but so did our alarm clocks. When one morning our rental car was towed because we had failed to wake up in order to move it for morning traffic, it was because our alarm clocks had shut off in the night when the power, once again, mysteriously failed. The last straw occurred three weeks ago when the cold water in the kitchen would not turn on. It was unusually cold out, and so we assumed that the water pipes had frozen. We phoned the landlords. No answer, left a message. The neighbours upstairs knocked on our door- they had no water at all. Three days later, the house warming up a bit again, the pipes in our kitchen started to explode. The landlady came over with a relative, referred to my boyfriend as Johnathan (which is not his name), and my heart broke in half and spilled all over while I watched her and her cousin put a flame to our kitchen walls in an attempt to solder back together our fragile water pipes. Even with the catastrophes prone to our apartment, I know it could be worse: one of my friends had part of the roof of his old apartment collapse on his bed while he was at work one day. For a week he succumbed to placing a bucket on his mattress lest it rain, waiting for his landlady to take some kind of action. Sometimes I can't believe these things really happen to people. Isn't there something wrong with a process that allows landlords to do background checks on you, but provides no way for you to find out if they are even moderately respectful human beings, let alone proprietors? What angers me more than the fact that we are paying to live in a total dive is that now we are right back in the exact situation we were in six months ago- looking for a place to live while trying to balance work and school, and making it through with at least a touch of money left. Yet here we are, searching again. So where to look for an apartment? A good place to start is at U of T's Student Housing Service. Located on campus in the second floor of the Koffler Centre from 8:45 to 5 pm daily, the housing centre provides students with a substantial list of accomodation, both on- and off-campus. You can also search their listings online. Another handy site, (although apparently every other person in Toronto uses it, which makes it highly competitive) is ViewIt.ca. This site's really useful as you search by area in a city, and the vast majority of the postings have photos, which ultimately saves you a lot of time. While it's easy (and apparently quite tempting) for landlords to market an 80-year old basement apartment as "bright and spacious, perfect for students," the reality is often quite different from the description, and it's a giant waste of time to go to see a dive. Another site that can be useful is Craigslist's apartment page. I do however find that you have to be careful with this site: while some of the postings can be pretty good, some of them are super crappy. Of all the places I've gone to see in Toronto, I find the worst apartments are generally those listed on Craigslist. The site is nonetheless worth checking out, particularly for its free stuff page. (All the mason jars you could ever want!) The second part of this post will consist of my ever-growing list of "Things To Look Out For While Hunting For Apartments." No one deserves to have their time and money wasted by moving into a dunghill, and as I have now lived in a great big one, I feel I have some quasi-pertinent pointers on how to avoid finding yourself up to your proverbial knees. 1) Check the taps, particularly in the bathroom shower. This way you make sure there is running water and a healthy flow of it. Check the hot water, to make sure it isn't just a tepid stream or flow of rusty goop. 2) Check the cupboards in the kitchen for signs of mice or bugs (pests are luckily the one thing we don't have to deal with... yet.) While I've never had to contend with roaches in a Toronto apartment, I have lived with a few mice families. I've always felt fairly divided about mice, too: they can be cute and fluffy and they've got gigantic ears, but their feces can host dangerous microorganisms and are potentially bad for human health. Best to ooh and aah over them at someone else's place. 3) Look for phone jacks and plugs. Having one plug per room means your house is going to be filled with extension cords, my personal pet peeve. 4) Find out who controls the heat in winter. By law, your place must be at least 21 degrees Celsius from September 15 to June 1, and anyone living in substandard conditions can take legal recourse by simply dialing a number if this parameter is not adhered to. 5) Look at the ceiling for signs of water damage- either from the apartment above or from the roof. If there are extensive signs of damage (discolouration, bubbling of the paint, or missing chunks of ceiling), move on. 6) Check for fire escape routes. It's good to have alternatives on the off chance that one day your place might rise to 1000 degrees Celsius while you're inside it. 7) Ask if any repairs need to be done before you move in, and if so, get the landlords to sign on paper that they will be done by a specific date. 8 ) Check to be sure that windows open and screens can be attached outside. Having air flow is essential in summer, when temperatures soar above 28 degrees. Also make sure that the windows seal securely and are well-maintained, so you don't live with a constant flow of Arctic wind from November through to March. 9) When looking at apartments, take note of how fussy the landlord is about what kinds of tenants he/she is looking for. The fussier, the better. It's always a good sign when landlords explicitly want quiet, clean, and respectful people living in their property. Not only does it mean that they value their property, but also that your neighbours are likely to be good. 10) If on a main street, try to notice how much noise permeates the rooms inside. Living on College or Queen sounds amazing, until you realize that every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night you won't get to bed until 3 am because of the party going on right outside your window. My own experience tells me that drunk people are really only fun to listen to if you are also drunk yourself. 11) Do not (I repeat do not) sign on for an apartment before renovations are finished. I still can't believe I fell for this one. 12) Get the landlord's cell phone number. Most landlords are great people and will give it to you without thinking twice, but there are a few out there (ahem) who make sure you have no way to contact them directly; and have a more convoluted excuse for not returning your calls sooner. 13) Sign a lease. It makes life easier in the long run. And finally, if you find yourself in the kind of situation I'm currently in, it's important to know that there are things you can do about it. If your landlords are unresponsive when you have a problem, it's not a bad idea to write them a dated letter about your concerns, keeping a copy for yourself. In really bad conditions, use or borrow a digital camera and take photographs. If dealing rationally with your landlord still proves an impossibility, there are also tenant associations around the city that advocate for tenant rights, like Ontario Tenants Rights, who can offer you advice. Finally, if things are beyond deplorable, and you're worried about your safety (i.e. you think the roof might fall in on you while you sleep), then simply phone the police. If the police can't do anything about it, they will be able to point you to a person or an organization that can. And now, here I go, off I go to search for apartments. -Mary

6 comments on “When rent is not an opera, but a tragic comedy

Comments are closed.

  1. A part of the roof fell down?


    I feel really lucky now.

    And this was really helpful Mary…except now I’m kind of scared to look for off-campus housing, although I realize I will need to do that one day.

  2. I don’t think you should be scared looking for apartments- just be sure that you really like the place before moving in. I’ve lived in great places in Toronto, too, which I neglected to mention. In fact, my favourite apartment yet was right around the corner from where we are now. It was spacious and clean, with an *amazing* landlord, I lived there for over three years- and only paid 400$ a month! It’s a total dream in retrospect.

  3. Wow, this is an incredible story! I was LOL’ing when about the lady setting fire to the walls as she tried to solder the pipes back together herself (though I know it was no laughing matter for you or your boyfriend).

    It would be awesome if you could add this rental to our site, this is exactly the kind of feedback we try to let all students know about before they move into their next rental!

  4. I’d be delighted if you linked to the post, Steve- but I’m not sure that I can tell you that you can post it directly on your site, given that I wrote it for U of T.

    Looks like a great site that you’ve started- you need to include Toronto to your list! Renters need more places where they can rate the properties they look at.

  5. Wow, I guess I’ve taken Residence for granted, but its tough work with apartments, eh?

    Great post 🙂