Housing

Renting an apartment in Toronto: what you need to know

So you’re moving to Toronto, eh?

Obviously you will need somewhere to live, and unless you have at least 500K lying around, you’re going to be renting.

I moved to Toronto in 2012. It’s now 2019. In those seven years, I moved nine times and in that time, the rental rates across the city have literally doubled.

After trying to find an apartment and going through the process many times, I learned a thing or two to share with you.

So I’m going to explain what the rental market is like in Toronto, because when I moved here, I had no idea what to expect, and I wish I had known so I could make better decisions.

Before I begin, I want to point out that while in most of my posts I compare Toronto to Sydney, Australia, in this post, I’m not comparing Toronto to any other part of the world, or to any other city in Canada. I’m only talking about the rental market in Toronto.

So what are you in for when looking for an apartment in Toronto?

There are some cities in the world where the population grows at an exponential rate compared to other parts of the country, and the housing market cannot keep up.

Toronto is one of them and it can be really hard to find an apartment here.

What makes it hard to find an apartment in Toronto?

Availability

Toronto is in a housing crisis. The average vacancy rate in 2018 was less than 1%. Buying a property is out of reach for many Canadians, so renting is the only option.

Affordability

The soaring rental market in Toronto has been making headlines in popular online media sources such as The Huffington Post, who published an summary of rental prices from Padmapper that pits Toronto as the Canadian city with the highest market rent rates, with a one bedroom now at a median price of $2260. That was after rental rates jumped 11.9% in one year.

The City of Toronto publishes a report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) that lists the yearly average market rents in the city of Toronto.

The 2019 report lists the average for a 1 bedroom apartment at $1270 per month, but that’s taking into account all the renters that are paying lower than market rate for various reasons, which I will get into further in this post.

So if you look up 1 bedroom apartments for rent in Toronto, all over the city and the GTA, the rental prices you will see tell a very different story.

Location

I hear a duh coming. But Toronto is huge and has poor transportation infrastructure for its size and population.

Because of this it takes a long time to get around. It has personally taken me one hour to go three kilometres on a bus going across the downtown core in rush hour, with the first 600 metres taking 20 minutes. I am not even slightly exaggerating.

The streetcar is even slower. It’s faster to walk or bike of course, but in this four seasons country, you won’t want to do that year round. And there are parts of this huge city that aren’t bikeable, so unless you live in the downtown core, that’s not really an option.

To avoid a four hour daily commute, and since half the city is serviced by buses and streetcars, which get stuck in traffic and require you to make at least one transfer if you’re coming downtown, the ideal location for commuters is either within walking and biking distances, or right near a subway station, and therefore there is a lot of competition to live in areas so that your commute to work won’t take up most of your non-working hours.

The condition of rental properties, including illegal rentals

Just like any over-crowded city, “affordable” rentals are often in bad condition. There are many landlords with set-and-forget rental properties. They get desperate tenants into their rundown properties and do nothing but collect their rent cheques – often in cash (perhaps so they can evade taxes??)

And in Toronto’s almost impossible market, many middle class citizens earning an average wage find themselves in these rentals.

As a full-time worker earning more than minimum wage, I personally have lived in rental properties with problems such as:

  • Mould
  • Flooding
  • Cockroach infestations
  • Mice infestations
  • Foundation problems
  • Electrical/wiring problems
  • Plumbing problems
  • Insufficient heating
  • Psychotic superintendents and/or tenants
  • Landlords that break the law and/or mistreat tenants
  • Smoking and illegal drug use and dealing on or inside the property.

It should go without saying that every apartment I moved in to was absolutely filthy and it was left up to me to scrub it down, from the range-hoods that were caked with the grease of the 65 tenants who had used them before me, to the dead cockroach bodies that were hiding in the backs of kitchen cabinets and made an appearance once the previous tenant had removed their belongings.

A lot of them also come with bunch of unreasonable rules put in place by the landlords (which is totally illegal) like:

  • no overnight guests (a.k.a your boyfriend or girlfriend can’t stay over)
  • no “heavy cooking” (a.k.a please only eat takeaway because the stove uses a lot of electricity)
  • no shift workers
  • laundry can only be done at certain hours
  • if you leave dishes in the sink for more than 24 hours I will charge you $20
  • If you use an air conditioner in the summer it’s an extra $50 a month

Sure, I could have spent a little more on rent, but I wouldn’t be able to afford much else. Like, food. And transportation to and from work. You know, the luxuries of life.

And landlords can get away with it because of the market. There is of course a social justice tribunal of Ontario, the Landlord and Tenant Board, that is there to deal with issues like these, but anyone who has dealt with them (myself included) knows that their existence is about as comforting as missing out on something you were really looking forward to and having someone say, “It’s okay, we can do it next time”.

Disorganized landlords/hard to get a response

Because the demand for affordable housing is so high, when you respond to an ad, you’re likely one of thousands of respondents that completely overwhelm the ad poster. If you don’t happen to see the ad and be one of the first respondents, you might get ignored.

Some landlords are organized and send the same blanket response with one to three “open houses” that you can attend. If you’re not available at these times, the landlord won’t usually accommodate you, so you miss out.

For individual showings, if you do get a response and are invited to see the place and you don’t decide then and there that you want it by handing over your first and last month’s rent and/or signing a lease, you will probably miss out.

I’ve had showings cancelled before I even got to see the place. I have also arrived at a showing only to be told they rented it to the person before me and I got turned away. I’ve even had landlord’s forget they were supposed to meet me (even when I confirmed/reminded them beforehand) and I found out when I got there that they weren’t coming.

For someone without a car, this is super frustrating.

But it’s a landlord’s market so that’s how it goes.

Rent control

What is rent control?

Rent control is a regulation that governs how much landlords can increase the rent for existing tenants.

I know quite a few people who have been living in the same place for a decade, either alone or in a shared housing situation, cycling through roommates while becoming the unofficial “head tenant” and thereby feel they have the right to call the shots, to keep their rent controlled places.

Earlier this year, BlogTO wrote about a pair of renters who were paying only $904 for their entire two-bedroom apartment in a building where one bedroom units “now cost at least $1,900”. The reason they were only paying half the market rent is because they signed their first lease in 2011 and as of then, the unit was subject to rent control.

Last year City News interviewed a tenant who told them he was paying $657 for his apartment in a building where one of neighbours was paying $1300 and another was paying $2000.

The jury’s out on whether rent control is a good thing or a bad thing. If you happen to have timed your life so that you moved in when rent was actually reasonable, and you were able to hold on to your place, you are now paying one third to half of what your newest neighbours are paying.

But some argue that rent control is bad for the economy. Well it’s definitely bad if you really want to move in to a neighbourhood but you cant find an apartment because rent-controlled tenants won’t ever move out. People have torn personal relationships apart to keep their rent controlled place.

Renovictions

Landlords have found a loophole to rent control. They evict a tenant for the purpose of renovating an apartment, and when the apartment is done, they re-list it for market price. As you can tell from the rent control examples, in some cases the landlords are able to triple the monthly rent.

This isn’t actually legal though, and a tenant can fight it.

But if the landlord really wants you out, they will find another way to make you go. Tenants who are paying rent controlled prices have told stories of being mistreated, or having their apartment fall into disarray in the hopes they will get fed up and move on. But when they potential rent increase you are facing is around $1000 a month, that’s easier said than done.

Read some stories in this article from Now Toronto: How Toronto landlords use renovictions to force out tenants

All these things have made searching for an apartment in Toronto somewhat of cat fight.

When looking for a place, you have to watch rental listings like a hawk. You pretty much need to be the first person to respond to an ad, and show up to the viewing with all your documents in order and your cheque for first and last month ready to offer the landlord on the spot, or you risk missing out.

Some landlords don’t let you get ahead this way, and they will hold an open house at a few pre-arranged times, and then consider all applicants before making a decision.

Treat looking for an apartment like a job interview. When you respond to listings, write a response that reads like a cover letter. Show up early, be well-dressed, make a good impression, and be ready with your credentials on paper. And money. All your money.

Types of housing in Toronto

So now that you know what the Toronto rental market is like, I’ll tell you about the different types of housing you’ll find for rent in the city of Toronto. I have not included average prices because in this market, they are increasing month after month.

Condo towers

Short for condominiums, these are high-rise buildings with shared amenities. They can be around 50 stories high, and the apartments tend to be small in size. Average for a 1 bedroom is around 550 square feet

They are the most expensive rentals in Toronto, because they are usually newer buildings and come with amenities, such as a fitness room, games room, rooftop patio with BBQs, theatre rooms and swimming pools, which are funded by maintenance fees, and most landlords would cover those fees by including them in the rent.

There are large clusters of condos on The Waterfront, in Liberty Village and King St West, at Yonge and Eglinton and in the Canary district, to name a few.

Pros

Modern and in good condition, condo buildings come with amenities for your enjoyment. You actually get what you pay for.

Cons

They’re tiny, with tinier balconies. They’re built as little cities, so living in a condo you’re in a glass-tower jungle with not much green space (apart from the newest developments which are mandated to have a green space on their rooftops). And every cluster of condos is under development, so if there isn’t a building going up next to yours, there will be soon.

Best place to find condo listings: Condo.ca or realtor.ca, as well as kijiji.ca

Purpose-built rental apartments:

These are low to high rise apartment buildings where all of the units within them are rentals only (not owned) and managed by the company that owns the building. They are usually older buildings that were built in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

There are a lot of these in neighbourhoods like Parkdale, Thorncliffe Park, Don Mills, Scarborough and The Beaches

Pros

More affordable than condos, and the process to rent them is very straightforward. As long as your financial history checks out, you’re pretty much guaranteed an apartment if you apply. Everything is done by the book.

Individual apartments are also a lot bigger than in these buildings than they are in condo towers. The average size of a 1 bedroom in these buildings is around 750 square feet, with decent sized balconies. In a condo, it’s about 550 square feet for a 1 bedroom, and there are balconies that are only big enough to fit two people on them.

Cons

They are older (1960s) and lot of them are in poor condition. Depending on the company, they are either constantly undergoing repairs and upgrades or just falling into disrepair. Just read about the cockroach and bedbug plague that Parkdale has been famous for, and the debacle between Minto Properties and their tenants in Flemingdon Park.

In the last few years, many of them have been undergoing renovations because as the market gets more expensive and newer tenants are paying higher rents, they are getting the funds to upgrade them.

While this is good news in some ways, it’s not if you already live there and they happen to be renovating the unit above you, beside you and below you all at the same time. Working from home, anyone?

Some of them come without balconies which isn’t a big deal in the winter because it will be too cold to go out there, but you’ll miss it in the humid, sticky Toronto summers.

Best place to find purpose-built rental listings: directly on the website of the management company.

Other apartment buildings

There are apartment buildings that don’t fall into the condo or purpose-built rentals category. These tend to be older buildings where the units are individually owned and some are rented out. They don’t have any extra amenities and very often come without balconies.

There are many of these in Forest Hill and The Beaches

Best place to find apartment building listings: realtor.ca, kijiji.ca, padmapper.ca, craigslist.ca

Basement apartments

What is a basement apartment?

In a climate like Canada, all buildings must have basements for structural and engineering purposes. When the ground freezes in the winter, it expands and then contracts when it thaws, causing shifts in building foundations. Basements help preserve the structural integrity of the building.

The advantage of a mandatory basement is that it adds one more storey of space to a building. So people figured out that if you finish a basement, it becomes a liveable, useable space as opposed to an underground cellar-type area. People also figured out that if they fit a basement with a kitchen and a bathroom, it becomes an extra apartment that they can rent out to subsidize the cost of their home or just make extra money. The equivalent in Australia would be a granny flat.

They are found in areas where there are a lot of free-standing homes, with many of them being very close to downtown.

There are several requirements a basement apartment must meet to be a legal, rentable space, so make sure you read up on it before you agree to rent one.

I’ve seen an array of basement apartments.

Some are large with high ceilings, are freshly renovated and get a decent amount of sunlight for an underground space.

Others are small, old, with low ceilings and have a damp, musty feel. They may also only have one tiny window which is level with the ground outside so if you turn off the light, the apartment is all but pitch black at any time of day.

Some are totally illegal, and some are advertised as “apartments”, when in reality, you’re just living in someone’s basement and are expected to give them access to the it whenever they need it.

I looked at one where the owners wanted full access to the washer/dryer, as well as the storage closets, and they wanted to keep unused furniture down there, under the guise of offering a “furnished” apartment. Plus, they were charging more than a real apartment in a building in the same area was going for! No thanks!

But people will pay it and agree to live under those conditions because of the tight market, and boy do landlord’s know it.

Pros of living in a basement:

They are cheaper than above-ground apartments.

They can be more quiet than a street level apartment. They are cool in the summer (but can be colder in the winter). They are great for people who like to sleep a lot as they get less sun than a street level apartment.

Cons of living in a basement:

They don’t get much sun, and in a part of the world where exposure to sunlight is already lacking because of the winters, living underground is not ideal if you love your home to be filled with light. Even if you get a bright and airy basement apartment, it will still get less light than a street level

Mould is a real concern in basement apartments and so is flooding, especially in the spring when the snow and ice start melting.

The furnace that heats the house and the hot water heater are often in the basement, so you will be sharing your space with them (and the noise they make).

The household laundry room is also usually in the basement. Depending on the setup, some landlords expect the basement tenant to share the laundry with the tenants upstairs (or the homeowner) which affects your privacy as the basement occupant. Other landlords provide the upstairs with their own laundry so they basement laundry is solely for the basement tenant.

Where to find basement apartment listings: kijiji.ca, craiglist.ca, viewit.ca, Facebook marketplace, Padmapper.ca

Converted Victorian rowhouses and mansions

A row of Victoria mansions in the Annex
A row of Victorian mansions in The Annex

There are some neighbourhoods that are on the edges of downtown Toronto that are entirely Victorian mansions. I’m talking over a century old, three to five storey, massive Victorian era homes. These houses are far too big for the modern family, so they have mostly been converted into several small apartments and/or rooming houses.

Pros

In my opinion, these most gorgeous and unique apartments you will find in the city. They have plenty of character and are in beautifully kept, quiet neighborhoods with tree lined-streets. Some of them come with darling balconies. They’re what I imagine when I think of North America.

Cons

Very competitive because there aren’t many of them, especially in the Annex, and they are often just as expensive as condos but without all the amenities (you’re paying for the neighborhood).

The mansions are very old (100+ years) so there can be issues around an ageing building (eg. mould, electrical problems, heating and cooling problems, general wear and tear, that “old house” smell) and need a good generous owner landlord to keep them maintained well.

Some of the houses are also five stories high (including the basement ) so you may have to climb one to three flights of creaky, narrow stairs if you aren’t on the main floor. Grocery shopping and moving in and out is hard work.

Many of them don’t have laundries or the laundry is in the basement (another trip up and down the stairs carrying things)

Not to mention the higher floors get stiflingly hot in Toronto’s humid summer (especially the top floor) so you need a window air conditioner, which increases your electricity (hydro) bill. Not to mention getting that thing up the stairs in the first place!

Found in the Annex, Little Italy, Parkdale and Riverdale

Where to find converted Victorian mansion listings: kijiji.ca, viewit.ca

Room rentals and rooming houses

This is a setup where you rent a room in a house the owner lives in and shares with you, or you rent a room with other tenants who are also renting rooms and you share the kitchen, bathroom and other common areas. Sometimes they are total strangers and you don’t meet them until you actually move in. This setup is illegal unless:

  • All the tenants are on one lease, or;
  • the dwelling is licensed as a rooming house or;
  • you share a kitchen and bathroom with your landlord

I’ve definitely lived in more than one illegal rooming house.

Other times they are a group of people who all met and agreed to live together, and have had someone move out and need to fill their room. All the occupants would be on one lease.

Pros

  • Cheapest option.
  • Great if you’re new to the city and want to meet people – the other occupants can be a source of instant friends if they’re cool people.
  • Some rooms come furnished which can be a great starting off point for a new arrival.
  • They are easier to obtain because the owners aren’t as strict with requirement (such as needing a credit history, which newcomers wont have.
  • Some of these living environments can be really fun and social, and you may never have issues with the property or your roommates the entire time you live there.

Cons

  • As mentioned, these types of rentals are often illegal.
  • You never know who you’ll be living with or what their habits or lifestyles are like (this applies whether you get to meet them first or not).
  • You deal with the owner and often don’t even get to meet the other people you’ll be living with. You might get a vague description like, “Oh – you’ll be living with two males. I think one works at Starbucks and the other one is a D.J.
  • It’s up to these total stranger tenants to agree on things like whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or buy toilet paper
  • Because the market is so tight, and in a lot of cases if you don’t say yes and sign a lease on the spot or at least within 24 hours, you’ll miss out, you have to take these descriptions at face value and hope for the best.
  • The landlord has rented to so many people in their career that you’re basically treated like a number.
  • It can be hard to get them to care about do repairs in a timely manner. Some of these homes are completely rundown and in dire need of some TLC but the landlord doesn’t care about them and just wants their rent checks. But the upside is those rooms will be really cheap.

Where to find room rental listings: Facebook marketplace, Bunz home zone, Kijiji.ca, Craigslist

Pretend apartments

Okay, that’s not their official name, but these are rentals by private home/building owners that aren’t really an apartment but are made to look like one.

Basically property owners with a bit of extra space are milking the fact that the people of Toronto are desperate for affordable housing, and they take a random corner of a property they own and put it up for rent.

Some of them are okay, like you would get an entire floor of someone’s house. Others are pathetic, and falsely advertised, and you don’t find out until you get there. More than once I have shown up to view one of these “apartments” only to find out that it was actually just a room on the second floor of a house, with a private kitchen, but you had to share the bathroom with another tenant. To get upstairs to your semi-private apartment, you had to walk through the bottom floor of the house where the owner lived with his grandmother (in one specific instance).

Imagine the awkwardness of, say, walking in at 1am on a Saturday night with a date? It would be like living with your own parents. And I can guarantee you, it wouldn’t be long before they started acting like your parents. And they would get away with it, because it’s not even a proper rental in the first place.

You would end up moving out to save your sanity, and be back in the housing market, only rents would have gone up another $500 a month in the year that you spent there (because of course, you signed a lease to live in this pretend apartment).

Pros

Some of them are well below market rent

Cons

Like room rentals and rooming houses, you have to deal with a lot of things that you wouldn’t in a proper rental.

Find them on: kijiji.ca, craigslist.ca, Facebook Marketplace

Watch out for these red flags when apartment hunting

A listing appears over and over in your search

If a place is on the market for more than a month or you’ve been looking for a while and keep seeing the same place again and again, that can be a red flag. It indicates a high turnover of tenants. Sometimes this is simply due to people upgrading or moving out for life changes, but it can also point to issues with that rental.

Do your research by visiting the property beforehand and try and talk to residents and ask them about their experience living there. You can check online to see if there are any scathing reviews, but in my experience, these aren’t so reliable.

For example, I found nothing on a house I moved in to that turned out to be riddled with roaches, but I found terrible reviews about the building I live in now and have had none of the problems described in the reviews.

Scams

Here’s how to spot a scam

  • The listings that seem too good to be true, in terms of price and location. They are usually a lot cheaper than the average rent for that area
  • Legitimate listings will give the nearest major intersection, whereas scams will give the entire address including the postal code
  • Scams will talk more about the neighbourhood than the actual apartment
  • The pictures look like they are all from a different apartment buildings

If you do unwittingly respond to an ad and it turns out to be scam, you will get an email that has a heartwarming story about a reverend and his wife looking for an honest tenant but they are out of the country etc etc, and you need to pay them online to get a key – or something to that effect.

Never, ever put down money for a rental until you see the place with your own eyes and get a lease agreement in writing. Ontario now has a standard lease that a landlord must use.

So now you know exactly what the rental market is like here. It’s something to seriously consider before moving to Toronto. Of course, it’s not impossible to find a nice place if you have a decent income and are willing to put in the time.

But if you’re on a working holiday, with a modest amount of savings and you score a halfway-decent job here, but you don’t want to spend it all on your rent, this is stuff you need to know!

What has renting in Toronto been like for you? Let me know in the comments.

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