Renting 101: What you need to know before you sign a lease in Montreal

Make sure you know your rights before you sign a lease (photo: Pexels.com)

Moving day in Quebec is less than two months away, and that means thousands of people are likely still scrambling to find suitable and affordable rental properties amid a housing crisis.

Even when renters find a new place that seems to meet their needs, the low vacancy rate, holding steady at 3.1 per cent, according to the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CHMC), puts them in a tenuous position.

"It's the law of supply and demand, so the prices spike and go up," said Antoine Morneau-Senechal, a lawyer who has written a book on tenants' rights.

"It really limits the possibility for tenants to negotiate their apartments, to negotiate the terms of their lease, and to refuse to answer some intrusive questions."

It creates a high-pressure environment where a prospective tenant vying for an apartment along with a dozen others may wind up signing a lease they don't understand, just to ensure they win the race.

Morneau-Senechal advises renters to take a step back and get some information before they sign any document:

Morneau-Senechal answers a few questions about the basics.

WHAT IS A PROSPECTIVE LANDLORD ALLOWED TO ASK OF YOU?

A landlord can ask an applicant to verify their identity by showing them photo identification, but they're not allowed to take a photo of the ID card or record some of the information on it, said Morneau-Senechal.

"They're entitled to your name, your last address, your phone number, and that's basically it," he said.

They're also allowed to verify your capacity to pay rent in the form of proof of income or a reference from a past landlord.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough proof for them in this current, competitive market, and they may ask you to sign a waiver permitting them to access a database, for a small fee, that reveals your credit rating.

"But there, they might also get information about any criminal cases in your past, or your past employment history," he said.

"Is that legal to ask for that? Well, that's an open question. It's been recognized by the courts that they can ask for your current past and your current file," but on a broader basis, can they dig through your entire history? "It's not that clear," the lawyer said.

That's where tenants get stuck, he explained, "because there any other people that will say yes."

If asked direct questions about credit or rental history, a prospective tenant is expected to be truthful or face consequences down the road.

It is illegal for a landlord to discriminate and deny a lease to someone based on race, or on sexual orientation, because they have a disability or because they have kids, among other reasons.

A landlord is allowed to ask for a social insurance number if they have a good reason – say you have a very common name and it's the only way they can establish that a credit score belongs to you and not a different 'John Smith.'

"They have to prove that it's necessary, but the general practice is to ask for it anyway," Morneau-Senechal said.

CAN A LANDLORD ASK FOR A SECURITY DEPOSIT?

By law, landlords can ask for an advance on the first month's rent -- but nothing else, legally.

"Unfortunately, that's not how it's usually done. Many landlords will ask for a security deposit. So you pay one or more months in advance, plus your first month's rent, but that is not legal in Quebec," he said.

If it happens, you can go before the rental board after the fact to try and get your money refunded.

"But again, there's a delay for that of about a year, and you have to begin your relationship with the landlord with a legal fight. So many people from a human perspective don't want to get into that."

HOW DOES A LEASE ASSIGNMENT WORK?

If you decide to assign a lease to someone else before the lease is up, you must give the landlord notice of your intentions first.

Assigning a lease means the renter to whom you are transferring the lease, upon signing, becomes entirely responsible for the lease.

"The landlord has 15 days to decide if he accepts or refuses. Technically, they cannot refuse for just any reason. It has to be what the law calls a serious reason."

You can fight a refusal before the rental board but are advised to do it early enough so that if the rental board sides with the landlord, there's time to come up with an alternate plan.

When it comes to lease assignments, there are some negatives for the landlord.

"Some landlords might like that because they don't have to do all the research on the tenant, but they cannot raise the rent. It's the same lease that continues, and it's assigned," Morneau-Senechal explained.

WHAT ABOUT SUBLETTING YOUR APARTMENT?

If you decide you want to sublet your place for a period of time, you're still on the hook for the rent if the sublettee doesn't pay up one month.

You're still required to notify the landlord of your intentions 15 days ahead of time, and the landlord has the right to refuse, similar to a lease assignment.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RULES AROUND EVICTIONS?

Morneau-Senechal says in his experience, the biggest misconception among tenants is that they have to leave their apartment if the landlord says so.

"Tenants have the right to maintain occupancy…to remain in your apartment as long as you want. There are a few exceptions to that, but they remain exceptions," he said, adding you don't have to leave if there's a change of landlord.

There's also no change to your legal status or lease if the landlord wants to renovate your apartment - though they can ask you to leave temporarily, with the understanding that you have the right to return.

"The two main exceptions are repossessions. If a landlord wants to repossess your apartment for a member of his close family – parents or children - they are permitted to do so, but not always.

People who are 70 years or older, are of a certain income depending on the region in which they live, and have lived in their apartment for at least ten years, cannot have their units repossessed and cannot be evicted.

If a landlord wants to evict a tenant they think is not living up to their obligations, they can't just serve them notice themselves. The rental board has to rule that it's warranted.

"Notice-based eviction exists in other jurisdictions, but in Quebec, you have to go to court, and as a tenant, you have you have the right to be heard," Morneau-Senechal said.  

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