After a recent apartment-hunting spree, I've come to the sad conclusion that Toronto has spawned a new class of greedy landlords. No, not traditional slumlords. On the contrary, these middle-class, upwardly mobile proprietors offer nicely painted walls, shiny hardwood floors and rooms free of mildew and drafty windows.
But they are hack entrepreneurs nonetheless. In short, the hack landlord deals in fake apartments.
At the best of times, a landlord is a public boss and amateur capitalist, a citizen who has power over his or her peers but little accountability, the Tenant Protection Act notwithstanding. Of course, there are good ones and I hope I was one of them way back when I tried to make my own bank payments by renting out rooms in a large house off Queen West.
Responsible landlords look realistically at what they're offering and are honest about the worth of their wares. They're the ones who ask themselves if their own daughter would be happy living there.
But then there are the shameless hacks, and the best thing you can do when you're trolling for a living space is spot them quickly.
I went apartment-hunting twice recently, once for my partner and myself and once for a friend. I spent about 60 hours searching for each space. In the end it was worth it; we found terrific places. But after the second search I finally woke up to why it took so long: the fake-out.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a classic, a "two-bedroom' at Dundas and Shaw priced at $1,450 plus utilities. Turns out the second bedroom was actually the living room. When I asked the landlord where the living room was, she pointed to the hallway between the two rooms and the kitchen, about 6 feet wide at its widest point.
The fudging of the living room/dining room is a common fake apartment trick. Hack landlords do whatever they can to make one-bedrooms into two so they can charge in the higher bracket.
Then there was a three-bedroom place on the second and third floors of a house near College and Crawford. The so-called living room had only enough room for a couch and a TV, and the dining room table was placed in the hallway beside a blocked-off stairway.
There was one bathroom, one medium-sized bedroom and two small ones with sloping third-floor ceilings. If it had been advertised for $1,300, that might have been okay, but they were asking $2,200 inclusive!
What can be done to make the hack landlord go away? Try these two simple tricks:
1) Use the phone Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the blower with the owner. Even if you're using viewit.ca, which shows photos of the unit, it's difficult to spot the fakes. Ask the landlord to describe the apartment and give you its dimensions so that you can create a little diagram. Ask if the dimensions are exact or approximate. One landlord told me the deck was 20 by 20 feet and it turned out to be 7 by 9.
Ask where he/she would put a dining-room table for six and the living room couch, coffee table and TV or whatever furniture you have. This will tell you a lot about the layout of the living and dining rooms.
Asking a lot of questions is a good filtering test. After all, this could be the start of a long relationship, and the owner is checking you out as much as you're checking him or her.
Most landlords in Toronto appear to be very nice people, and mostly are, but be alert. Don't use their friendliness to determine whether an apartment is suitable. Make like a detective and "think dirty.' Assume they're trying to hide something.
2) Overreact when faked out The general quality of the landlord-tenant relationship demonstrates our fundamental respect for each other and the world we live in. So the most important thing you can do is create a nasty scene when someone tries to pawn off a fake apartment on you. That's on behalf of the next poor sap who comes along. Let the hack landlord know that he or she isn't just letting you down, but the whole damn town. Happy hunting!
Average number of rental units built annually in Toronto since 2000: 291
Number of rental units lost to condo conversion in the GTA between 1996 and 2000: 17,515
Average number of condos built annually in Toronto since 2000: more than 17,000