Reportage, Photography, Video

Renting a room? Here what to look for

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 7:24 am

I was greeted at the door of the sixth room I visited that day. I hoped this one would be different.

I had come up to Ottawa a month early from my hometown London to look for a room to rent for the upcoming school year.

“Please come in,” the owner said.

After touring the expensive Woodroffe condo we got into the gritty details. And for about the fifth or sixth time that day I heard the same thing:

No friends, no overnight visitors, no laundry between certain hours. Eat, sleep, study and go to school.

This is the life many landlords, who listed rooms to rent on the Algonquin SA website, expect a student to lead while paying rent to live in their home.

Thankfully, after making two Greyhound bus trips down to Ottawa, I managed to find a fair landlord who treated his tenants like human beings and not escaped convicts.

Unfortunately, not all landlords have this view.

I have a list of rules that I usually give them,” Ottawa area landlord Jim Westaway said. Tenants must keep their area clean, stick to doing laundry between certain hours, cannot have overnight guests and the living room — that’s off limits.

“I live here also,” Westaway said. “it’s my place; if you leave (the rules) too open, they abuse it. I don’t want people doing their laundry at 11 p.m. and making a racket.

When asked if the same rules apply to him, Westaway said: “The rules do not apply to me, not as an owner, I don’t think they should. I should have at least more privileges than they do.”

“But I do respect them.”

Does this seem a bit harsh? Over-protective? How could the trust inherently needed in a rental agreement sink so low?

Another landlord, Maryanne M., (who did not want her full name identified), offered one explanation.

Maryanne placed an ad on the SA website looking to rent out a room in her house. She received an email from someone claiming to be from out of town. They didn’t know the city well, they said. They also proposed a deal: they’d send her a cheque for $5000, she could take off the first and last month’s rent and mail back the remaining money through Western Union.

Suspecting rental fraud, Maryanne went to the police. She was right.

“It’s a popular move,” an attendant at Ottawa Police information said. “I’d definitely recommend people to be aware.”

Beyond money transactions, landlords have to be wary of whether students will respect their home.

“I’ve had people just trash the place,” Algonquin Pembroke student and landlord Kristin Bennett said.

Thankfully, there’s a flip-side to the Ottawa room and board scene.

David and Michelle Vesey live on a quiet street in south Ottawa. They call themselves an “empty-nest couple”, having had three sons who have all moved out. This year, for the first time, they rented rooms to two Belgian students, Kathleen Devivier and Anne-Sophie Wijnen in Canada to study international business at Algonquin and improve their English. The two parties communicated over facebook before deciding anything.

“Our vision as corny as it sounds, is this is their home,” Dave Vesey said. “I mean we aren’t mom and dad, but we can be if you want.”

The students have access to the kitchen, living room and the outdoor hot tub and pool.

Of course, the house has rules: drugs aren’t okay, and if you smoke, you must do so outside.

“We wanted to go outside (of Belgium) and learn and see another culture,” Devivier said.

She also said there have been no problems while living in the Devey’s house.

Mitchell Coogan has been around the rental block. Coogan, who works as a real estate financial analyst for the government, has been renting out a room in his house for 12 years.

Like the Vesey’s, he started by renting to foreign students, but grew tired of the communication barriers.

“They were teenagers, but very much on the tab of their parents,” Coogan said. “It was different because it was more integration into the household, not just room and board.”

In 12 years, Coogan has never had to kick a tenant out, and said he has had very few problems.

Coogan sets no particular rules. He finds coordinating shower times useful as there’s only so much hot water to go around, but beyond that, “It’s mostly just respect everyone in the house.”

“The reason I’ve had good experiences is I’m a very straightforward guy,” Coogan said. “I’m not their parent, but it’s not a business enterprise and people get that.”

In his experiences he’s also noticed a trend when people come to view the room.

There’s the early bird who comes a month or two before the school year to look around and see other places. Next are the middle-time-frame people, who often take the place on the spot and finally, the late rushers who frantically make contact before classes begin.

“I get a million calls from all over the world a day or two before school starts,” Coogan said.

So it seems in rental agreements, respect is a two-way street. If you are planning to rent a room in the future, beware of jaded landlords who will impose overly harsh restrictions. Scout out prospects early to avoid the late rush, communicate before signing a rental agreement to fully understand what is expected of you and remember that while you are paying for your room, you are living in someone’s home and need to respect them and their property.

Living away from home is a big step in a person’s life and it can be much better than just eating, sleeping studying and going to school.

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