So you’ve found a nice place to rent and you’re excited about moving into your new home? There are some common things that every tenant should do in order to make sure that the renting process flows smoothly.
1. You should have a written lease.
You should always have a written lease with your landlord. The written lease provides you with proof of what you and your landlord both agreed to do. A verbal lease does not offer as much protection to you, and the law will apply to your relationship with your landlord regardless of the form of the lease. It is a common misunderstanding that if there is a verbal lease, then the tenant does not have to provide the proper notice period to end the tenancy. This is not the case. The law will usually apply to both verbal and written leases, so even if your lease is an oral one, you will still have to obey the law and provide a proper notice period to your landlord.
What if your landlord refuses to enter into a written lease? You may want to question whether you want to live somewhere without written protection of your tenancy. We are, after all, talking about your home. You can remind your landlord that the lease protects them too. If you decide to move in anyway, then you should confirm your understanding of the agreement with your landlord in writing. After you make an oral agreement, then you follow the discussion up with a written confirmation of the agreement. Get your landlord’s email address, and then write an email to your landlord, including all of the specifics of the agreement, and ask them to confirm if your understanding of the agreement is correct. Having written confirmation of a verbal lease is not as good as having a full written lease, but at least this way you have something to fall back on.
Do not just find a lease on the Internet! In Canada, residential tenancy law is different in each province. Each province has a government department that will oversee its law, so you should contact that department to find out where you can get forms, or it will be able to refer you to another organization in that province that develops forms.
2. You should understand your lease.
As much as we all know that we should read every line in a contract before we sign it, the reality is that we often just skim it, or don’t read it at all. The harsh truth is that a lease is a contract, and you need to understand the lease and what it is you are agreeing to by entering into it. If you don’t even know what you are supposed to do (“What? I was supposed to clean the sidewalk? I didn’t know that!”), then chances are you are going to do something that you weren’t supposed to and there can be serious legal consequences for breaching a lease. The importance of the lease cannot be overstated; this contract is about having somewhere to live, it’s about your home, and your family’s home.
If you and your landlord agree that something is important to you, or to both of you, then you should insert this as a term in your lease. If you know that you are going to hang a lot of pictures on the wall, then insert a term stating that any nail holes will be considered reasonable wear and tear, and then you can have the peace of mind of knowing that you will not run into trouble with having your security deposit returned.
There are some common problems that tenants can run into by not reading and understanding the lease.
- Application Fees: Some provinces allow a landlord to charge an application fee. You would pay this when you put in your application for approval to become a tenant, and if you move in, then it will usually form part of your security deposit. You need to know what happens if you don’t move in, or if you are not approved by the landlord. Does the landlord get to keep this money? In some provinces, yes, the landlord gets to keep the money, even though you aren’t actually moving in.
- Lease break fees or re-rental fees: Some provinces allow the landlord to charge a re-rental fee, or a lease break fee, if you move out without providing the proper amount of notice. These fees can equal one month’s rent, or more.
3. You should know what kind of lease you have.
In general, there are two types of tenancies: periodic and fixed term. You need to know what kind of tenancy you have because there are different rules that you must follow in order to end either of these kinds of tenancies. It’s not enough to know when you pay the rent, because you could pay the rent once a month in a periodic tenancy as well as in a fixed term tenancy.
Periodic tenancies continually renew themselves, unless you or your landlord gives notice that you want to end it. The tenancy exists for a period of time (for example, from the first of the month to the last day of the month) and then continually renews itself. Periodic leases are commonly monthly or weekly.
A fixed term tenancy will have the end date specified within the lease itself, and the lease will end on that date. In other words, the lease is only for a specified (fixed) period of time. The rent can be paid monthly, weekly, or whenever you and the landlord agree it should be paid. You should look at your lease to find out if there is an end date right in the lease; if there is an end date, then you have a fixed term tenancy.
4. You should know how to end the tenancy and what can happen if you don’t follow the rules.
You need to know how to end the lease properly, or, if you can’t end the lease properly, then you need to know what could potentially happen to you, and your security deposit. How a lease ends depends on the reason why the tenant is leaving (did the landlord do something wrong? Or does the tenant just want to leave?) and what kind of lease the tenant has (fixed term or periodic?).
Usually, if you have a fixed term tenancy, then you cannot end the tenancy early without your landlord’s permission. If you do not get your landlord’s permission to end the tenancy early, then your landlord can collect the rent from you until a new tenant moves in, or can charge you a lease break fee, or can keep your security deposit. If you have a periodic lease, then you should find out how long a notice period you have to give your landlord, and you should always give your landlord written notice to end the tenancy.
5. You should know the rules about return of the security deposit.
Your landlord can keep a portion or all of your security deposit if you owe any money to the landlord for unpaid obligations (for example, unpaid rent) or if there is damage done to the unit that is beyond normal wear and tear. Normal wear and tear means the damage that occurs to the premises even though you take care of and maintain the premises. An example to think about: if you are a tenant that moves into a brand new place, then despite how well you take care of the place, the property will never be in as good of condition as it was before you moved in.
Sometimes you will not be able to agree with your landlord about what damage is okay and what damage is not okay. One way that some provinces have tried to help with this problem is to make a requirement that the landlord and the tenant conduct an inspection of the property when the tenant moves in, and to write down the condition of the property at that time. Then, when the tenant is moving out, they should conduct another inspection and write down the condition of the property at that time. By having the two inspections, the landlord and the tenant both know what was wrong with the place when the tenant moved in, and then they can compare the condition when the tenant moves out, to see if the property is in any worse condition. The written reports then become the evidence in order for the landlord to make a deduction from the security deposit.
If you know what your landlord is expecting of you, and what your rights and obligations are, then you can feel more secure in your home and truly enjoy living there. A written lease can give you this peace of mind.
This column was produced with the generous support of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation.