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Roommates: Rules of engagement
Jan 19, 2008
Money is often tight in the new year. January's rent, hydro, cable, car and phone bills swiftly pile onto months of holiday shopping on credit. Savings depleted, many renters happily living alone rethink cohabitation.
That said, moving in with someone is a major deal. Like a romantic partnership, a roommate requires communication and compromise. Also, pairings that aren't bang-on can be disastrous.
Here are some tips on how to pick a roommate, negotiate toward a workable living arrangement and what to do if you end up with a "roommate from hell."
FRIENDS VS. STRANGERS
A common dilemma is whether to move in with a friend or a stranger. The online renters' resource, U.S.-based Oh My Apartment, is full of postings by those who moved in with friends and lived to regret it.
"I moved in with my two best friends and needless to say we're no longer friends. . . . Never move in with your friends!!!!!" reads a posting.
Another reads: "I just moved in with my best friend. . . . I thought it would be all peaches: parties with mutual friends, both heading in the same direction career-wise, both level-headed. . . . wrong, wrong and horribly wrong."
Friends tend to be lax on pre-move discussions, says Garry Wise, a Toronto litigation and family law lawyer. Opting not to spell out lifestyle and financial concerns beforehand can lead to conflict later.
Still, Wise suggests the conflicts you face living with a friend are likely to be less acute than with a stranger. You may hate your friend's boyfriend but you're less likely to find yourself in personal danger or victimized by theft.
OPTING FOR A STRANGER
If living with a friend isn't an option and you're in the market for a roommate, there are plenty of resources to help.
Jeff Hersh, founder of myhood.ca, a Toronto-focused apartment rental and roommate search engine, suggests looking through classified ads such as those published in the Toronto Star. There are also a number of roommate-matching services available online.
"You usually have to pay a monthly fee – so it's important to choose a site that actually has a lot of listings in order to get good value for your fee. The two best are – ca.roommates.com and EasyRoommates.com," Hersh says.
Once you've selected some candidates, Wise suggests doing reference checks, asking to speak with a former landlord and asking for proof of employment or income.
"I think the overriding concern is, to the greatest extent possible, know who you're getting involved with as your roommate," Wise says.
Once you've picked a person, consider living together for a probationary period clearly spelled out in a written agreement.
In other words, create a lease between yourself, the pre-existing tenant, and the new person coming in. Then, if things change for the worse, you retain the power to boot them out.
"If I were renting to a roommate, my biggest concern would be, 'Can I get this person out of here if I want to?' There's nothing worse than a roommate from hell," he says. "Your best protection is a sub-tenancy agreement with an end date."
HASHING OUT THE RULES
Marriage counsellors encourage dating couples to cover hot-button issues such as kids, religion and money before merging their lives. Moving in with a roommate is no exception.
"To the extent possible, try to iron out your understandings in advance and reduce it to writing," Wise says.
Talk about how common bills will be split; how often boyfriends and girlfriends may stay over; what food will be shared; what the cleaning expectations will be.
Then formalize it all in a written document that is signed, dated and held by all parties.
For tips on drafting an agreement, visit ehow.com/how_4331_draft-roommate-agreement.html.
WHEN THINGS TURN SOUR . . .
About four years ago, I had a roommate from hell. For one, her two purse-sized dogs were "trained" to do their business on special sanitary sheets in the apartment but they pooped everywhere – under the dining room table, behind the couch, under my bed.
The spiralling situation led me to consider deserting both my lease and my roommate, a bad decision from a legal standpoint.
If you find yourself in an unbearable situation, Wise suggests seeking legal advice before acting rashly "because you are exposing yourself to potential legal risks."
If your roommate has deserted you, however, you become responsible for 100 per cent of the rent, even if you both signed the lease, Wise says, adding you should act quickly to find a replacement roommate.
"There are roommates and there are `roommates,'" Wise says. "In any roommate relationship, I think it's important to distinguish between those that are strictly a business relationship where the two parties are really at arm's length, and those that have more of a family-law perspective," Wise says.
In other words, there are different legal implications when you move in with a stranger than when you move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend. For example, a couple living together for more than three years may have spousal support obligations if they split, Wise says.
"Young individuals in particular who may be cohabitating for the first time need to be aware, there could be family law consequences if the cohabitation lasts for a significant period of time," Wise says.
Smart landlords learn from tenants
October 20, 2007
Myhood.ca gives power to renters. The Toronto-focused apartment rental and roommate search engine, started in 2006, allows users to look up apartments and read and post apartment reviews.
After receiving 800 or so reviews, founder Jeff Hersh has two major tips for new landlords. "No. 1, you're never going to have a positive experience with a renter if you have a below-standard place," he says.
Bedbugs, cockroaches and no windows aren't going to fly no matter how cheap the rent.
"You need a minimum standard of quality at a place. If you are a first-time landlord and you just bought a place to rent, make sure it's in good shape, even if it's a new condo. If it's a house, it's always worth taking off that one extra month of rental income that you would have had and put it toward fumigating your place or ensuring that there's proper siding."
If people are unhappy, "they will do their best to break that lease and get out of it," Hersh says.
Tip No. 2 is about courtesy and customer service: "Irrespective of the quality of the place, even if it's awesome, it may all go to crap if you've got a really bad super or you yourself are a really bad landlord," Hersh says. "You really have to treat this as if it's a customer experience."
This can work on the flip side as well. Hersh has read many a review where the place itself was questionable, but the tenants raved about it because of their great landlord.
Tenants from hell
October 20, 2007
Lots of new condos mean there are lots of investors getting into renting, and many of those are learning the hard way that being a landlord is not easy money
For Trevor Moo, it seemed like a good idea at the time – renovate the basement in his new house, find some nice folks to rent it and collect a cheque each month to put toward his mortgage and utilities.
What could go wrong?
Plenty, the retiree soon learned.
Four months after his tenants moved in, the apartment became a scene of violent fights, chain smoking, midnight lockouts and strange odours. Moo filed two notices with the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board to begin the process of eviction for the couple, who had also stopped paying rent.
The male tenant was arrested for assault and was barred from the premises. Then, well into legal proceedings, the female tenant fled – leaving a destroyed apartment behind. During the expensive cleanup last year, Moo found 32 hypodermic needles.
"For $650 to $700 a month, when I add up the psychological costs, it really doesn't balance out," he says, adding that he thinks legal protections go too far in favour of tenants, leaving small-scale landlords largely unprotected.
Especially with the wave of condo construction in the GTA, small-scale investment properties abound. There are 155 new residential projects with a total of 39,000 units in the works, according to the City of Toronto's planning department. Borrowing money remains easy, with extended amortization and interest-only mortgages.
However, becoming a landlord is a complex legal, financial and emotional undertaking that leaves many badly burned by high-maintenance tenants and professional scammers.
Jeff Hersh, founder of myhood.ca, a website where Toronto tenants can post reviews about their living space, says that new and small-scale landlords who rent out their basements often fall into the too-casual trap.
"You feel as though you don't need to be as professional in the way that, these are just some random people paying me some cash," he says. "You really have to pay attention to protect yourself," Hersh says. "Make proper leases; make proper rules. People just kind of forget about those things because it's their own place."
Cristian Vergara, a real estate agent and rental property investor for the past four years, says "you have to have the personality for it." He suggests people approach becoming a landlord as they would starting a business.
Of all the mistakes that new landlords make, the most common and costly one involves poor screening of tenants, says Ron Marzel, a Toronto-based lawyer who works with landlords.
"You really need to dig and have the applicant fill out a very detailed rental application," he says. That includes calling several references, including the previous landlords.
Because of current city bylaws and tenant protections, it's hard for a landlord to proceed with an eviction. The process takes months and can be costly in legal bills and loss of rent.
Disreputable tenants can live rent-free for six months at a time as they bounce from place to place, Marzel says, wreaking havoc in the lives of landlords along the way.
Young Lee, a mortgage broker with Canada Mortgage Store and real estate investor for the past three years, had a tenant who stopped paying rent after the first two months. Lee had done a credit check on the tenant and found he had no credit. But he did get what seemed like a reasonable explanation.
When it came time for the eviction process, Lee hired a lawyer. While the man eventually left on his own – tenants who have made a career out of scamming often disappear right before they are evicted or ordered to pay – Lee is still out $6,000 in rent.
He advocates approaching the tenant-selection process as you would hiring someone to work for your company. Get at least three references from former landlords. Call their employer to verify their salary. Do a credit check.
If you don't have the time or know-how to do your due diligence, pay an expert to do it for you, Lee says. The small upfront cost of having someone else do proper screening is peanuts compared with the potential costs of renting to a bad tenant.
New landlords "don't think about what-ifs beforehand," says Glenn Sheridan, community legal worker at the Landlord's Self-Help Centre in Toronto.
"It's easy to fall in love and get married but difficult to go through the pain and upheaval of a divorce or separation," he adds.
In other words, it's easy to miss warning signs when you're focusing on dollars, cents and filling vacancies.
Sigmund Roseth, retiree and real estate investor for many years, barely escaped the trap of a disreputable international tenant. Eager to fill his long-vacant unit, he agreed to rent to a model from the United Kingdom who had spotted his place on craigslist.org, a website that has free listings for many categories, including apartments for rent.
The woman's purported modelling agency mailed Roseth the first and last month's rent by way of a fraudulent money order for $2,500 more than required. The woman then emailed to say it was a mistake and could Roseth please wire the difference back to her.
Western Union had seen this scam before and alerted Roseth.
"I guess I was too anxious to rent the place. My critical judgment slipped for a moment," Roseth says, crediting Western Union with "saving my bacon."
Lapses in judgment often begin before looking for tenants. Just because there are lots of condos on the market and lots of money lenders available in Toronto doesn't mean there are necessarily lots of good deals.
Lee has some hard-earned tips about purchasing investment property. No. 1 is to buy in a good location with good neighbours.
One of Lee's clients bought a house at a great price, only to discover when the deal closed that the building next door was a crack house.
"That is the investor's fault for not doing his homework," Lee says. "Tenants are going to find out there's a crack house and they're not going to want to live next door."
When doing research into a condo unit, Lee looks into the financial statements and bylaws of the building, as well as the percentage of renters versus owners living there.
You don't want to buy a property where 95 per cent of the building's units are rented.
"Tenants tend not to care about the property they're living in," he says, adding he looks for a building that is at least 80 to 85 per cent owner-occupied.
Location is important, but not as much as how you treat tenants and the quality of the product you offer them, says Mehran Bagheri, a mortgage broker, real estate agent and rental property investor for three years.
During renovations on one of his new investment properties, Bagheri pored over plans, adding costly features such as soundproofing and better insulation on the hot water tank. "I could have saved $10,000 to $15,000, but I chose to soundproof the units for my tenants," he says.
The investment is already paying off. While his rent of $650 to $750 for a basement suite in Richmond Hill is by no means a bargain, he's had no vacancy in three years without ever placing a newspaper ad.
Surf before you sign a lease
August 30, 2007
Toronto slumlords are getting shut out with a new website that warns prospective renters about lazy landlords and poorly managed apartment buildings.
Myhood.ca -- a slumlord's worst nightmare -- is a new apartment-search website that offers up thousands of apartment listings along with reviews of the buildings by its residents. Interested in a certain spot? Read what your potential neighbours have to say first.
"If you move in and it's crap, you are stuck with it -- for a year on average," says Jeff Hersh, myhood.ca founder. "It is a big part of your life; you want to make sure you are making a good buying decision."
Hersh expanded on a similar website in the U.S. -- apartmentratings.com -- and likens myhood.ca to tripadvisor.com, which offers reviews of vacation spots and hotels.
"You can read reviews of a $100 DVD player ... and yet you couldn't read reviews on an apartment building where you would be spending $10,000-plus a year for it," says Hersh, who lives in downtown Toronto.
"There was a humongous need -- you just want to know what you are getting. Even if you go for a look-see you don't really know what you're getting."
On myhood.ca, there are about 3,000 listings for the GTA, with 1,000 reviews focused on downtown and mid-town. Renters have the ability to search via neighbourhood.
With Toronto's vacancy rate pegged at about four per cent, Hersh, who has a masters in business from the University of Western Ontario, says the site, which launched in April, receives tens of thousands of hits a month, with plenty of stinky ratings to alert fellow renters.
"There are some really bad tenant reviews -- a lot has to do with the superintendants," he says. "Some of the negative ones are really negative, horrible stories.
"For example, in the Church and Wellsley area, the entire floor of a building was being used as a meth lab. And someone committed suicide on top of the building.
"Also, there was one where landlords were running a 'rub and tug' in the back," he says.
Hersh, 30, says there are some funny reviews too, providing information people are just happy to know about. He says 70-75 per cent of the reviews are positive.
"Although I have never had a bad experience renting, I always found that the process of renting was never a good experience," he says.
Oodles of Googles
Globe & Mail
August 4, 2007
Most of us know mash-ups as a dance-floor fad, but now map mash-ups have hit the net. Finding the Muskoka cottage on MapQuest.com is just the beginning; the more adventurous Netizens of Toronto can dive deeper into online topography. Welcome to the tech trend called "Google Maps mash-ups," where programmers can fuse a regular Google Map of Toronto with a tool to display specific information, like available apartments in the city. Or the best taxi route from A to B. Toronto has inspired more than 40 Google Maps mash-ups available free. Here are The Globe and Mail's picks to get you started:
What It Does: Estimates a taxi fare from anywhere in the city. Just type in a starting point, then a destination, and instantly the Web tool tells you the fare. For instance, Toronto Pearson Airport to City Hall costs $56. But quoting estimates to cab companies isn't advisable.
How It Works: Google opens its Maps program code so developers can turn addresses into latitude-longitude pairs. Taxiwiz's tech backbone finds the distance between those two points, and then outputs a cost based on route info and fare rules. It doesn't take into account rush-hour traffic or collisions.
Review: Simple to use. Works well as a rough benchmark for casual cab rides, but dedicated back-seaters won't agree with every estimate. The rush-hour factor doesn't affect Taxiwiz's fare, unfortunately.
What It Does: Finds available housing, apartment reviews, people looking for roommates, all displayed with different icons on a Google Map. Search by neighbourhood or just post a review of an apartment you loved or hated. Get the last laugh over your worst landlords.
How It Works: MyHood developers blend Google Maps of Toronto areas with listings from Craigslist and NOW classifieds. They also created a function to match a listing with a review.
Review: An impressive amount of posts, all dated within the week of searching. A quick link to original Craigslist ads is a nice touch. But where are the apartment reviews for College Street? Even Sheppard Avenue West gets some love.
What It Does: Finds the TTC subway route between two addresses, working similarly to the Taxiwiz mash-up. Displays written directions, footnoted with alternative start and end subway stations for the trek.
How It Works: This transit trip planner measures the distance between the subway stations closest to your start and end destinations. (The site doesn't display many bus routes.) Then shows you the route to walk once you get off the subway. (Based on distance, Tomapster also outputs the time for each trip.)
Review: Could be the TTC website of many geekified dreams, if it only included bus and streetcar data. Oddly, a bug in the code displayed 301 Dupont at Bathurst Station.
All Toronto Pubs
What It Does: Displays bars, pubs, clubs and live music venues on a Google Map, searchable through drop-down menus. Clicking on the pint icon for each venue (how appropriate) pops up a bubble listing with an address and a link to additional info.
How It Works: Manually submitted venue details are overlaid atop a Google Map interface. Each venue has its own page of contact info, closest TTC subway station and comments from users.
Review: Socialites couldn't ask for a better map to list nightlife options. It seems the site is updated often — Philthy McNasty's has correctly replaced Peel Pub on King Street West, and The Central replaces the recently folded Red Guitar on Markham Street. But the lack of user comments makes the site feel bare and unloved. A search bar is highly recommended.
Walkjogrun.net (then click Map, then click Cities, to pull up a menu for Toronto). A collection of 1,500 Google Map-able running routes in Toronto, but requires a Google Earth download.
OKfairway.com private and public golf courses, with address, phone number and weather conditions. Covers the entire province, so now you can finally find the nine-holer near Keswick (Orchard Beach).
myhood.ca on CityNews
June 22, 2007
Check out a spot on CityNews about myhood.ca
Find an Apartment at myhood.ca
June 4, 2007
Jeff Hersh had a little idea. And as little ideas are wont to do, it hatched into a bigger one.
While enjoying the Australian sun in Sydney in 2006, he came up with myhood.ca. It's a place where Torontonians can find their next apartment.
The site is more than just a glorified Google Map Mashup. Oh, it's much more. Just barely a month old, the site already has over 900 reviews of various apartment buildings in and around Toronto-so you can find an apartment which suits your taste. If you need a roommate, it'll help find you one as well. The site also features tips and "Hood Briefs," where you can find out more about a particular neighbourhood.
'Hood'? you might say yourself, noting the negative connotation of the word. "It's all about the neighbourhood," Hersh explains to me as we sit down for coffee. People tend to forget that the word is derived from "neighbourhood," which is the focus of the site. From Parkdale to the Annex and to the Beach, people define themselves by the hoods they live in. It's just natural, then, to call it' "MyHood."
Hersh isn't a programmer. In fact, his background is in investing and management strategy. Now, he's an entrepreneur with a growing website. He's a true entrepreneur. He already has some ideas on how and where to expand. Marketing first. Second is adding a boatload of content: more reviews, tips, articles. Then add more listings from Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York, eventually expanding outside Toronto to encompass the whole Greater Toronto Area. The site's target market is the coveted: 18-35 year-olds; students and young professionals alike. He wants to broaden that too. Eventually, if things go according to plan, he'll have more than apartments on the site. He's already thinking about condos and rightly so. They're springing up like daisies throughout the GTA.
Too much growth too quickly? Hersh doesn't think so. His mind is on continuous expansion and improvements. "Move it forward," he says.
With the site boasting thousands of reviews, there is some worry of "whiners" or people who give bad reviews because of personal reasons or gripes. Hersh realizes this, "a negative review is useful if it's a true review." He notes that if an apartment has one negative review and ten outstanding ones, the reader should know enough to decide which to believe. People should still be able to think for themselves.
Hersh's goal for the website is to "help people avoid bad places as well as help them find good places to live." Or, as MyHood's tagline says: Search. Rent. Live.
Living in the Hood
May 2, 2007
Toronto slumlords are about to feel even more pressure to improve their properties due to tenant reviews thanks to myhood.ca
May 1st, 2007
Ever have a crappy or really good landlord? Ever want to tell the entire world just has awful/well your landlord treats you? Well, myhood.ca wants to give you that voice on the Web with a new service that lets you tell other tenants about bad/good landlords and rental buildings. With some Google Maps mash-up (and tag cloud) thrown into the fray, apartment renters can search for rental buildings and read reviews. “Just as Councilor Howard Moscoe’s plan to license Toronto landlords is the political response to slumlords, myhood.ca is the consumer response” said Myhood.ca Jeff Hersh. “With many positive reviews, not only does myhood.ca highlight slumlord buildings to potential renters, it also ensures that renters find quality rental units. as well.
Show Me Your Hood, I'll Show You Mine
April 30, 2007
A new Toronto website promises to do to slum landlords what ratemyprofessors.com did to bad teachers or what dontdatehimgirl.com did to most men we know.
myhood.ca is based on a relatively simple idea: start with an apartment search site, then let renters post reviews of their landlords/buildings and make those reviews available to apartment searchers. However, it's the execution that makes this site work.
A press release announcing the launch of myhood.ca claims that "Toronto slum landlords" are about to "feel the wrath of tenants." That's maybe a good headline, but focusing on negative reviews would hardly be a useful way to find a good apartment. That's why it's for the best that myhood.ca doesn't do that. Instead, reviews featured on the main page are mostly positive, with the odd awful one thrown in, presumably for entertainment value. ("Not bad if you don't mind mice, crazy neighbours, and undependable landlords," reads the headline of a review for 235 Manning Ave. Come to think of it, Torontoist actually likes crazy neighbours and thinks mice are cute, but you get the point.)
The site also has its fair share of obligatory Web Two-Point-Ohhhhh! elements, most notably a tag cloud linked to a Google Maps API. Yes, there's no feeling quite as satisfying as that of following a tag cloud link to a Google API.
It's sometimes easy to underestimate all of the little ways in which this series of tubes we call the internet helps to empower people with information. myhood.ca is a good reminder.
myhood.ca - Apartment Shopping in Toronto
April 30, 2007
Seeing as how the b5media HQ is in Toronto, it’s about time we featured a website for Toronto folks don’t you think? The myhood.ca website is an online resource for people fighting through the apartment housing market in one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, Toronto! Might also come in handy for b5media anyway with the way we’re growing our corporate support team in the area. I’m sure somebody will be looking for apartments soon.
Jeff let me know about the site and had this quick synopsis to let me know what it was all about:
That’s where myhood.ca comes in. We give our viewers the ability to search by neighbourhood (Toronto is the city of neighbourhoods – you should be able to search by them), combine rental listings from online classifieds with property managers (think “one stop shop”) and match them with the very useful apartment reviews (over 800) written by current and past tenants – all on an interactive Google map.
The site let’s you quickly search for an apartment of your own, or even find other people that are looking for roommates in your area as well. This is really the sort of thing that would be perfect in many places in addition to Toronto. I’d say this kind of service would be huge in college towns, I know Craig’s List is popular for that as well.
The user interface on the site is really smooth too. As Jeff said, everything is laid out on an easy to use and navigate Google map. Very nice. You’ve also got some of the defacto types of information on the site as well like reviews and tips for moving and finding the right place for your situation.
If you’re in the area and in need of finding a great apartment and/or roommate, Uncover the Internet has done the first big step for you. We’ve pointed you in the right direction for success.
Uncover apartments in Toronto yourself on myhood.ca
Okay, have to mention this, was just browsing through the site and one of the apartment buildings that came up had the street address of “666 Spadina Avenue”. Um, yeah, not going to live there.
Globe & Mail
April 14, 2007
If roaches and angry landlords ring a bell at your place (or just barge right in), you're not alone. The tenant reports posted on a new ratings website suggest that some Toronto apartments are crawling with unsought guests, guileful supers and nightmarish neighbours.
On www.myhood.ca, the 800 apartment reviews from 62 neighbourhoods rate the size, safety and quality of renters’ past pads and the unbridled comments reveal details that don't show up in a lease's fine print.
One Don Mills resident warns: "These apartments are used as grow houses and massage parlour rub and tugs - don't try to complain to the super- I think they get bonuses." A Church and Wellesley Village renter cautions: 'A meth lab blew up two floors above me and someone jumped from the balcony and died. This is the apartment from hell."
Some buildings have Jerry Springer-worthy slumlords who bring their fists into the mix (tenants in one Parkdale building complain of a property manager who answers complaints with black eyes). And other buildings reveal rodent zoos ("It was just crawling with cockroaches and bedbugs," says one Bloor and Jarvis renter).
"Just as Councillor Howard Moscoe is trying to get rid of slumlords with a rating system, so are we," explains Jeff Hersh, 29, who launched the site last week (and currently lives in a Richmond Street condo). "It's about time renters heard the reality.