I rented my first apartment during my second year of university when I lived off-campus with four other girls in an old house in London, Ont.
Part way through the year, strange sounds in the night revealed a family of raccoons living in our floor boards. Our landlord called in an animal control expert to get rid of them – but not before they gave us fleas.
Thankfully, the four apartments I've lived in since then have been in much better shape, in part because I've learned to watch for signs that could flag a bad landlord or poorly-maintained property.
But with vacancy rates in some of Canada's major cities at record lows, finding an affordable place in good condition and with a reliable landlord can be difficult.
Tight rental markets can spawn desperation and force apartment hunters to settle for less-than-ideal places. "If you're too anxious to find a place you may let your guard down and overlook things," says Tom Durning, senior staff member with Vancouver's Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre.
And because most landlords require a one-year lease, rushing into a place that's in poor condition, exceeds your budget or comes with an absentee landlord can result in a difficult year, personally and financially.
Fraud targeting renters is also more common in tight rental markets, says Geordie Dent, executive director of Toronto's Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations. Some common forms of fraud are e-mail scams and phony ads on classified sites like Craigslist and Kijiji that try to entice renters to send money for non-existent or unavailable places.
Mr. Dent and Mr. Durning offer the following tips for avoiding scams and finding a good place:
1) Do your homework
Tenants' rights and the conditions landlords can include in leases vary widely across provinces, territories and municipalities. For example, landlords in Ontario cannot prohibit renters from having pets. No-pet conditions in leases "might as well not exist," says Mr. Dent. But these conditions are allowed in other provinces including Quebec and British Columbia, where breaking a no-pet clause could be grounds for eviction.
In B.C., landlords must do a walk-through of the rental unit with the tenants and document the condition of each room, such as the state of things like walls, carpets, electrical outlets and appliances. The details should be written in what's called a condition inspection report. See an example on the B.C. government's website (pdf).
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. offers this list of resources for each province and territory.
2) Never go see a place alone
The chances that a landlord may try to discriminate against a prospective tenant decrease when they're with someone else, says France Emond, spokesperson for Quebec's tenants' advocacy group, Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires (RCLALQ). A friend can also serve as witness if a landlord offers something and later denies it.
3) Do a thorough inspection
Really take a look at the place and walk through the entire property when you're visiting. The state of repair and cleanliness of the property will indicate how well the landlord cares for it. Most importantly, never send money or sign a lease without seeing a place first, Mr. Dent advises.
4) Interview the current tenants
A common misconception is that you can't talk to an apartment's current tenants after the landlord has left. But you should - they can tell you about the landlord's track record for fixing things and responding to complaints.
5) Don't pay with cash
Use a trackable form of payment like a cheque or credit card to make your initial deposit on a place. "To avoid getting caught in a fraud, never send money online, wire it or pay with cash," Mr. Dent says.
6) Come prepared
If you've done your research and and followed the experts' recommendations while apartment hunting, be ready to make a move when you find the right place. In tight rental markets, apartment hunters may not have the opportunity to go home and think about whether they really want a place before submitting an application -- someone else could snap it up first. Bring references, cheques and receipts that help prove your track record of paying bills on time, RCLALQ's Ms. Emond suggests.
7) Get it in writing
If a landlord tells you he or she is going to paint the place or fix something before you move in, put it in writing by adding it to the lease. "Otherwise it doesn't exist," Ms. Emond says. Documenting everything is a good habit to get into if you need to ask for repairs, she adds. If you end up having to take your landlord to court for not fixing something, you'll need proof of your communications in writing.
My partner Don and I were lucky to find our one-bedroom apartment almost three years ago by taking our time and looking at a handful of places. We benefited from searching in the winter when fewer Torontonians want to move and competition in the rental market slows.
We deal with mice every winter and the occasional appliance malfunction, but our landlords respond to our complaints reasonably quickly. And I'm happy to report that the only raccoons we've discovered have been outside our house, knocking over the garbage.
Have your own tip for apartment hunters or a landlord horror story? Leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail (email@example.com). We'll publish the best contributions in an upcoming blog.