Finally — home sweet home

Kerri Breen
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Finding a decent apartment in St. John's is tough and there's plenty of competition

I couldn’t have picked a worse time to look for an apartment in St. John’s. But at least I’m in good company.

Andrew Harvey, who co-ordinates Memorial University’s Off-Campus Housing office, says hundreds of students looking for places to live will contact him within the next month.        

The office doesn’t rent property, but facilitates connections between students and landlords.

Lately, he’s heard from landlords who have gotten three calls within half an hour of their apartment ad being posted.

He also hears from many students that prospective landlords aren’t calling them back.

“The places either get rented, or the landlords just get swamped with people,” he said. “It’s kind of frustrating for students at this time of year.”

As of April, St. John’s had a 1.1 per cent vacancy according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Harvey said availability doesn’t begin to match the demand, especially for one- and two-bedroom places.

“Tenants are scrambling for properties all the time,” said Steve Osmond, owner of Island Property Management.

“There’s a shortage of units for rent out there.”

August is the busiest time of year for his company, and they receive more than 30 calls on each average listing.

Other companies are reporting the same, but within days of searching online and asking around, my partner and I managed to view a prospect — a two-bedroom apartment above a Water Street business, next door to a seedy bar.

As we waited outside for the landlord to finish showing the place to another couple, I could almost smell the booze on the breath of the barflies hanging out steps from the entrance to our would-be home.

It wasn’t even 4:30 p.m.

The carpet smelled mildly musty as we climbed the stairs, but the apartment itself was in good condition.

The living room, with its hardwood floors, was bigger than some of the nearby pubs. Two bedrooms with high ceilings boasted old-fashioned mantels.

But the kitchen was a sliver of space, and there was no parking to speak of.

The asking price: $845 a month. It was almost on the heels of George Street.

I looked at my other half and he looked at me.

We told the landlord we’d take it.

•••

If an apartment hunter gets a viewing appointment, he or she had best come with the damage deposit in their back pocket, Osmond said.

But don’t necessarily expect to get the place.

In this piping-hot rental market, some landlords can afford to be choosy. The apartment listings read like personal ads.

“Quiet and considerate.”

“Non-drinking, non-smoking.”

“Mature.”

“No pets.”

A listing for a two-bedroom in Kilbride requested there be no deep-frying.

The selection process involves character judgment, Osmond said. Landlords talk to prospective tenants and try to find out what he or she is like.

“A landlord is looking for a ring on your finger and what kind of car you’re driving,” he said, "to see and make sure that you can pay the rent.”

•••

After agreeing to rent the Water Street apartment, we had to submit to a background check and provid the names and numbers of our employers and previous landlord.

We were accepted, but we decided against the place after thinking about it more and finding out about the $45 water tax that would be charged on top of rent.

Osmond’s company rents and manages properties on behalf of owners, and he asks for a lot more information than the company renting the Water Street place. 

He uses a one-page application form that requests the information needed for a credit check, social insurance number, licence plate number and children’s ages, if any. It also asks if you have a criminal record.

The form doesn’t have to be filled out completely for the tenant to be considered.

“Most of this information is not used to determine whether or not you’ll become a tenant, most of that information is used to track you down once you beat the crap out of the place and move along,” he said.

“The places either get rented, or the landlords just get swamped with people. It’s kind of frustrating for students at this time of year.” Andrew Harvey

He said security deposits are returned about 80 per cent of the time.

It’s all about protecting the investment of the property owner, he explained.

He’s been in the business for decades and said it’s not appealing to be a landlord right now, given the rapidly increasing cost of real estate.

The boom has caused rents to climb as well.

The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in St. John’s was $680 in the spring. I’ve been looking since June and I haven’t seen many listings below $700.

•••

After turning down the Water Street place, our hunt was back on.

I wondered if I was being picky.

Time was running out to find a place for September, and I had been burned by one landlord before my official search started.

A friend of my partner’s was moving out of a great apartment building. The place had it all — his and hers closets, parking, laundry, a great location near Quidi Vidi and a price that was almost reasonable. He had worked it out with his landlord in June that we would move into the ground-floor apartment for August.

On the day we were supposed to meet the landlord, he phoned our friend and told him the owner of the building’s kids were moving into the place, despite our verbal agreement.

He had another apartment, a one-bedroom asking about $1,000 a month that we could view that weekend, if it lasted until then.

It didn’t.

Talking to Osmond, I get the sense I’m lucky to have gotten this far.

Free ad websites such as kijiji.ca have been flooded with impassioned pleas from people looking to rent.

A young, quiet, working couple with no children or pets needs a new place because their current apartment is unregistered.

“Please help us,” their ad says.

Another ad is titled, “Needed for Aug. 1: anything.”

One Kijiji poster looking for an apartment is blind and uses a wheelchair. She has three dogs — her retired guide dog, a former guide dog in-training that has epilepsy and a new guide dog.

She’s been searching for a place for months now and is staying with her mother. The house, she said, is so inaccessible she has to crawl across the bathroom floor. She’s been outside the house three times since mid-May.

“The biggest obstacle right now is that the majority of people seem to be dead set against dogs of any form, well-trained or not,” she wrote.

The legislation that protects tenants and landlords, the Residential Tenancies Act, only covers renters’ rights after the rental agreement has been made, so it doesn’t tackle the reasons why a landlord can refuse to rent.

“No pets, no smoking are two of our biggest criteria for owners when they put the property up with us,” Osmond said.

“Bring a letter of reference from a previous landlord; it goes a long way.”

•••

Viewings for Apartment 3 and Apartment 4 were both arranged through colleagues — I’ve realized asking around is the best way to find a place in this kind of rental market.

I saw two apartments before they were advertised.

Apartment 3 was cosy, but its location wasn’t ideal.

Apartment 4 was perfect — a gigantic, loft-style bedroom, washer and dryer, central location, one-and-a-half baths and parking.

And at $900 a month, the price is about average among the July and August listings.

We can’t wait to move in.

 

kbreen@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.Harvey, Island Property Management

Geographic location: Water Street, St. John's

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  • Deanne
    September 07, 2013 - 09:11

    Just found this