Pick the shitty one: a guide to renting your first abode

Op-eds Opinions

Your first rental—you’re going to remember it for the rest of your life.  It’ll provide you with stories and memories, and all you have to give in return is a little patience, and maybe some sweat and blood. But hey, who’s keeping tabs? I’m here to help guide your selection. It’s important to pick the right landlords, the right style (suite, apartment, full house), and it is of the utmost importance that you pick the dingiest, rattiest, and most cringe-worthy hovel on the market. Trust me: it builds character.

There is of course a limit to just how decrepit your first rental should be.  You certainly don’t want it to be dangerous, and I’ll get into that later on, but if your place has rattling heaters, loud landlords, and bad renovations then congratulations! You’ve struck gold my friend. Sign that lease and get ready for the best hands-on character-building exercise a university student can afford.

Let me share with you a snapshot of my first rental. It was a basement suite (the Cadillac of shabby shanties) that was reno’d by my non-renovation-expert landlords. There was at least a hole or a pipe decorating every wall in the suite. The furnace sat in the centre of our kitchen/dining room/entryway. The toilet was installed six inches away from the sink, even though the washroom (which sat at five degrees Celsius for most of winter) was bigger than one of the bedrooms. The kitchen cabinets were made of wafer-thin, medium-density fiberboard, and my bedroom/our living room used to be the garage. It was cold, it dripped, and it creaked and squeaked. There were three locks on the outside of my bedroom door, and none for the bathroom. The ceiling stood at five-foot-eleven (thankfully, my roommates and I are not what you’d call tall), and the improvised doors required ducking to get through and much force to open or close—and that is just the half of it.  Did I mention my two roommates and I could only do laundry on Sundays from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.? In my eight months there, I learned more about how to take care of myself than any book or university course could have taught me. So let’s get you set up with some knowledge on how to find your dream dive.

There are thousands of rental properties in Victoria. For your first year renting (especially if you’re coming from the close comforts of residence), location is key. You’ll want to keep to areas with an under-20-minute walk to campus, if possible. You’ll spend enough energy keeping up with your suite’s quirks; the last thing you’ll want to deal with is missing the bus. Online classifieds are the most efficient way to search. The average cost, in Victoria, for a bachelor-style rental (wherein bedroom, living room and kitchenette are combined) is $669, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and one-bedrooms are $889. But you may want a roommate, and ergo feel like an extra bedroom would facilitate that. Now you’re looking at something around the $1 069 mark. Three bedrooms? That’ll run you $1 295, but those are rare in a suite style. If you’re looking for a full house with upwards of five bedrooms, then that’s another ballgame altogether.

Each style of unit has its basic pros and cons. An apartment is going to be noisy and very basic. It lacks the uniqueness one gets in a renovated basement suite, but the blandness of an apartment can leave room for creative expression. Some people prefer being off the ground, because there are fewer bugs and it can be a little warmer, but apartments also feature the weird smells of all the other tenants’ cooking and smoking habits. Apartments are also likely to be a bit more expensive and usually feature paid laundry. Main floor suites have the benefits of having more light and windows on average than their basement counterparts, but are also more expensive and harder to come by since many landlords will rent out their basements for extra money.  A basement suite, as I mentioned earlier, truly is the Cadillac of decrepit dwellings. They’re cold, cheap, and “creatively” renovated. For the person who enjoys being cooped up, staring at a screen in the dark for hours on end, there really is no other option. Writers, gamers, movie buffs, shut-ins, and the sun-sensitive really flourish in such low-lighting situations. If you’re thinking a full house is ideal for you, you likely have a lot of friends that you just can’t live without, right? Well, be prepared for parties, because you don’t have the “my landlords live upstairs so, like, we can’t have lots of people over, man,” excuse. Also be prepared for dealing with party clean-up: vomit, spilled beer, upper-deckers, and an excess of empties. You may think your friends are not the type to do such things, but you don’t always know about your friends’ friends.

So what makes these places dingy? Well, it should be obvious upon inspection, but to put things more clearly, you are renting for the location. Whether it is close to the university, downtown, or a very busy bus route, the location makes up the majority of your monthly rent. So anything that is over the average cost will reflect how nice that place is. My first suite was a three-bedroom, and we paid $1 300, an exactly average cost. We were only 10 minutes from campus, mind you, so as you can assume from the previous description, we paid solely for location, and nothing else.

Victoria had an average vacancy rate of 3.5 per cent in 2012, according to a survey done by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. This is pretty average for the province, but it means you’ll be hard pressed to find a good location at the last minute, even though they figure there are about 23 554 rental units in the Capital Region District (of course this number excludes shifty basement suites that are privately rented out). Our average cost of renting sits a cool $50 under the provincial average of $929, but that number is only so high due to Vancouver’s astronomical average of $1 013. In the end, we’re still the second-most expensive place to rent in the province, followed closely by Fort St. John. Looking for the cheapest place to rent? Try Port Alberni. Average cost of rental there is a mere $576, but the two-hour commute to Victoria could prove costly.

Some might think I’m crazy to say shitty places build character, but I honestly think they do. A bad apartment is going to throw curve balls at you everyday, and with that your problem-solving skills mature. The amount of discomfort you can tolerate increases. You’ll be less squeamish, more durable, and your skill set will diversify. Some of these things might not seem that important, but whether you are out meeting new people, in a class, or at your job, you don’t want to be the whiney, entitled, namby-pamby who isn’t realistically grounded enough to finish what needs doing. When I say “finish what needs doing,” I don’t mean something sinister either. I really mean rolling up your sleeves and doing the perceived hard task. People respect the kinds of people who aren’t afraid to dig in and get a little dirty, and battling in the trenches of your rental nightmare is the best way for a student to get that experience. In the long run, it’ll pay dividends to know basic repair skills, and how to deal with a grouchy landlord.