How to avoid getting scammed by your landlord

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Be smart, save evidence, and stand up for yourself

An approximation of the amount of evidence a Victorian tenant should be able to collect on their scamming landlord. Stock photo via Pixabay

In the best case scenario, protecting yourself to make sure your landlord isn’t scamming you — intentionally or otherwise — shouldn’t be something you have to do. But as I’m sure many other experienced renters in Victoria would agree, it’s a reality that you must prepare for in the event the worst befalls you.

It’s hard to know your rights as a student, let alone defend them against landlords seeking to scam you. Who has the time to read and retain the entire Residential Tenancy Act when you’ve got classes, a job, and maybe even a life? 

As someone who has encountered my fair share of illegal renting situations — because you don’t typically find out this much about renters’ rights the easy way — I’ve compiled some of my top suggestions for navigating tenancy and renters’ rights in Victoria without getting scammed or unfairly evicted. 

1. Always read what you’re signing (and always sign something)

So you’ve found a place to rent — congratulations, and welcome to the wild world of Victoria tenancy! First things first, you’ve got to figure out the tenancy agreement.

Don’t just sign on the dotted line, make sure to read every clause you’re about to agree to and check that any deviations from the standard B.C. tenancy agreement are reasonable. At the very least, this should include your rental period, damage deposit, and rent.

Even if your landlord doesn’t provide you with a standard written lease, you’re still covered by the standard tenancy terms once you’ve paid your damage deposit to establish tenancy. This includes the estimated 800 illegal secondary suites tucked into the basements and garages of Oak Bay homes.

2. Check the legal rent increase allowed for each year 

If your landlord texts you a seven per cent rent increase the day before they expect the new price to take effect — yes, this actually happened — whatever you do, do not agree. This is highly illegal, and also not the proper way to give notice for rent increases.

For 2020, the maximum rent increase your landlord can ask of you is 2.6 per cent, which is the province’s annual rate of inflation. Legally, rent increases can only occur a year after you moved in or since the last rent increase, and come into effect three months after your landlord sends you an official notice.

Be careful if your landlord asks you to sign a new lease after one year of tenancy — this may be an attempt by them to sneak through an illegal rent increase, as new tenants can be charged more. Most leases automatically transition into a month-to-month rental agreement after the first year — but when in doubt, check with the Residential Tenancy Branch.

3. Keep evidence of everything. EVERYTHING. You’ll need it.

Now, I’m not saying you have to go full on Richard Nixon and start recording every phone call and interaction you have with your landlord, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a file full of evidence for a rainy day.

This starts from the very beginning — make sure to take pictures of any existing damage to your space right when you move in, to have a time-stamped record for when it comes time to get your damage deposit back. That way, your landlord can’t hold you responsible for anything outside of your term of residence.

Make sure you and each of your roommates have an electronic copy of the lease and all official rent increase notices in the event you need to reference them or someone misplaces their copy. If you’ve encountered issues with your landlord — say, they haven’t responded to messages about maintenance issues, have attempted to get you to agree to an illegal rent increase, or have done anything else that you might one day want evidence of if filing a dispute against them — screenshot all emails, texts, and other relevant communications and compile them in a folder or Google doc. It’s better to have multiple copies, just in case. 

4. Know what they can and can’t ask of you

Every tenant is entitled to peace, quiet, and privacy — what the Residential Tenancy Branch calls “quiet enjoyment.” This includes the ability to have guests, play music at a “reasonable” level during “acceptable” hours, use all of the facilities described in the lease, practice religion, and cook any food you want.

If there are serious mould issues or infestations such as bed bugs, your landlord is responsible for dealing with this issue to maintain health and safety standards. If you live in a unit with multiple residences, they’re also responsible for clearing snow and cutting the grass around your property. When moving out, it’s important to know that you’re not expected to make repairs for anything that might be considered “reasonable wear and tear.”

Before your landlord drops by, they legally need to provide written notice at least 24 hours in advance with a specific time and purpose before they enter your space — even if they live in the same building. You might find this to be an uncomfortable or difficult thing to enforce with your landlord, but if that’s the case, just think about the peace of mind you’ll have when they’re not knocking (or worse, not knocking) on your door unexpectedly.

5. Do the math

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, your multi-unit hydro bill might be divided wrong, or an extra zero can find its way into a proposed rent increase. In the worst case, it might not be a mistake. In any case, it’s always best to ask your landlord for the direct billing receipts and break out that calculator to make sure any amount you have to pay is accurate and reasonable. In the end, it’s a small — but extremely rewarding — habit to keep up.

6. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself

The biggest mistake students make while renting in Victoria is allowing themselves to accept an uncomfortable or illegal living situation just because they don’t feel it’s worth the effort to discuss difficult issues with their landlord, research their rights, or file a dispute with the Residential Tenancy Branch. Checking out the B.C. government’s quick tips for tenants online is the best first step (besides reading this article — you’re already making great strides).

It’s not always easy, but it’s ultimately worth it to stand up for your rights as a renter — whether your landlord doesn’t return your damage deposit within 15 days of you moving out, or they’re dropping by unannounced multiple times a month. Always try talking to your landlord first to resolve issues, but filing a dispute can also be an effective (and sometimes, when the result is financial remuneration, satisfying) method. You have to pay for filing online, but chances are if the dispute goes in your favour, your landlord will be responsible for reimbursing that expense.

With a vacancy rate just above one per cent, bad landlords thrive off of the desperation and acquiescence of tenants. But tenants aren’t as powerless as they might be led to believe — there are ways to report, file disputes against, and receive compensation from landlords that have broken the Residential Tenancy Act. Just stay strong, and when in doubt, save anything sketchy to an evidence folder.