5 red flags tenants should look for before signing a lease

If you’re a tenant living in a rental home or apartment, you probably know how stressful moving can be. It’s time consuming and expensive (plus, there are hidden costs of moving), and on top of all the packing, you have to look for a brand new place to live. Being a renter isn’t easy, and in today’s hot market there are more things to worry about than just the condition of the apartment you’re looking to rent. You also need to be on guard when it comes to a potential landlord, and the lease.

We want you to know exactly what to watch out for, so we’ve gathered a list of 5 red flags to be aware of when you’re on the hunt for the perfect apartment – and landlord:

1. There are signs it might be a rental scam

Fraudsters are taking full advantage of the hot rental market. With the vacancy rate decreasing, rental fraud is on the rise1, so it’s important to be aware of the most common scams:

  • “Phantom” listings. Fraudsters will often steal photos and information from an old home or apartment listing and offer it as an attractive rental property that doesn’t actually exist. The easiest way to recognize this type of scam is if the rent seems inexplicably low for a “too-good-to-be-true” rental. The poster will usually ask for a deposit up front (usually via e-transfer) in order for them to hold the unit for you, without any formal agreement. They’ll also often claim to be out of town and unable to show the place. But be careful, some seasoned con artists have been known to set up viewings for properties they don’t own. Always vet the listing agent. And never, ever send money before viewing the home or if you have any doubt the person isn’t who they say they are. If you do, that deposit might be gone for good.
  • Application identity theft. You wouldn’t think you could become a victim of identity theft when filling out a simple rental application. The truth is, some rental fraudsters aren’t just looking for cold, hard cash. Instead, what they want is your personal information like your SIN number and banking details. Only provide what’s required by law, and never submit an online lease application or credit or background check without meeting the landlord or agent first to make sure they’re legitimate.
  • Bait and switch. Some scammers will post an ad for a property that is different than the available rental. This scam usually targets people who are unable to view a rental in person before moving in. When the renter shows up to view it, the unit looks nothing like the rental that was advertised, and paid for, online. Again, make sure you carefully vet the agent if you absolutely can’t visit the place before signing a lease, and insist on a virtual tour beforehand.

2. The property manager or landlord is hard to contact

If you’re setting up a viewing and it’s a constant back and forth with the property manager or landlord, it’s not a good sign right off the bat. It’s always in your best interest to meet a potential landlord in person to gauge if they’re reliable. Read online reviews (if there are any) and chat with other residents to find out if the person in charge is accessible when it comes to responding to repairs and minor emergencies (like if there’s no hot water in the winter).

3. The landlord asks questions they’re not allowed

Some landlords will ask questions that infringe on your rights set out by the Human Rights Code2. Questions about age, disability, sexual orientation, and gender expression are prohibited. So are any about race, religion or ethnic background, place of origin, and family status. They’re also not allowed to ask if you get welfare or other public assistance, or your citizenship (including refugee status). A landlord can’t refuse to rent you an apartment based on the above. If they do, you have the right to file a claim with your province’s Human Rights Tribunal.

4. The lease isn’t the standard form or it’s incomplete

A lease is a legally binding contract between you and your landlord. Signing it means you agree to whatever is on it – and that means everything. Be sure to watch out for these red flags on a lease:

  • Non-standard lease. If there is a form of lease required by the legislation in your province or territory, and may contain certain items. A legal lease (like the one in Ontario) lists things like a description of the rental unit, the rent amount and services and utilities included. It also includes sections that can’t be changed, like where the landlord must maintain the rental unit and property. Some shady landlords will write up a non-standard lease where they’ve left out legal requirements – like their duty to maintain your unit. Get to know your province’s standard lease (if it has one) and make sure the one provided by the landlord is legit before signing.
  • Incomplete lease. Some landlords will provide the standard lease but tell you that some items will be filled out after you sign. They might promise certain things – like that they’ll take care of the utilities, for example – and then back out after the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Everything should be filled in before signing. And, both you and your landlord should have identical copies signed and dated by both parties.
  • Additional terms. Yes, a landlord does have the right to add a few extras to a lease – like rules about the use of common spaces or amenities. But if what they’re asking is unlawful or unreasonable (like banning roommates or overnight guests, or asking you to pay for repairs that they should be responsible for), walk away. Remember, any additional terms must be agreed upon by both the landlord and the tenant.

The bottom line? Get familiar with your province’s landlord and tenant act. Don’t feel forced to sign a lease if something looks fishy! And as long (and boring) as it is, read the entire lease to make sure it’s legitimate and nothing’s been left out.

5. The landlord asks to be added to your insurance policy

Some landlords may ask to be added to a tenant’s insurance policy as an additional insured, as a condition of the lease. They usually request this so that they’re notified if a tenant’s policy is cancelled. Although it’s not illegal, it may cause issues should a claim situation happen. Here’s why: as a tenant, the main coverages of your insurance policy are personal belongings coverage for your own belongings, and your personal liability. The landlord doesn’t have any financial interest in either. If a claim arises and both you and your landlord are named as insureds on the policy, there may be a conflict regarding who will receive any settlement. Some insurers actually refuse to add the landlord in order to avoid this. Regardless, landlords should have their own insurance to cover their rental property, landlord belongings and personal liability arising from the ownership and operation of that property.

Yes, looking for a new place to live takes hard work and a vigilant eye. If you know your stuff and aren’t afraid to ask questions, you’ll find a rental you’ll love and feel confident making into a warm, welcoming home.

Protect the things you love most. Don't get scammed: Fraudulent online rental ads on the rise in Montreal Human rights for tenants (brochure) Signing the Lease