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Landlords and leases: What to know before you rent

- February 18, 2014

DSU Vice-President Student Life Danny Shanahan with lawyer Sara Shiels. (Sher Scott photo)
DSU Vice-President Student Life Danny Shanahan with lawyer Sara Shiels. (Sher Scott photo)

Renting for the first time can be a tough experience. Many student-renters have questions and concerns but often don’t know who to ask. Luckily, according to Sara Shiels, partner at Clifford Shiels Legal, the experience does not have to be a daunting one.

“The most important thing is to be aware of your rights and responsibilities,” says Shiels. “If you are aware of those you can protect yourself and your renting reputation.”

Shiels is a Dal alum herself and long-time renter, giving her plenty of first-hand insight into the HRM renting scene. Speaking to students at the DSU-hosted seminar “Landlords and Leases” late last month, she gave students eight tips for successful renting.

Tip 1: Read the Act

While it may seem like a pain to slog through a piece of legislation, particularly if it’s not something you have a lot of experience with, it is well worth it.  

The Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Act lays out all the rights and responsibilities for renters and landlords, and is law. That means if the Act says you or your landlord must do something, it can be enforced by the Director of Residential Tenancies. Don’t be too worried: as far as legislation goes, it’s fairly reader friendly and only 33 pages long (four of which are cover and table of contents).

Tip 2: Shop around

Don’t feel obligated to rent the first place you view, or give a landlord an answer on the spot. Take the time to find a place that is a good fit for you, with a landlord that you feel you can work well with before committing. Go over the lease and if you have any questions, ask someone.

Tip 3: Settle things before you lease

You may ask the landlord about things like parking, laundry, utilities and snow removal during a viewing or conversation. Before you sign the lease, read it over to make sure everything you talked about is in there as discussed. Things to be sure of include the start date, the term of the lease and anything that might involve an extra charge. Remember: a lease is just a contract and can include whatever you and your landlord agree to, but if something isn’t there, it will be hard to enforce.  

Note: If you don’t sign a lease, the default lease provisions that are a schedule to the Act will apply. See here: http://www.novascotia.ca/snsmr/pdf/ans-rtp-form-P-standard-lease.pdf.

Tip 4: Safety first

Your landlord is responsible for keeping your place in good repair — i.e., meeting health and safety standards, and making sure it is habitable. If you have any concerns in these areas, make sure you discuss them with your landlord. If you think your landlord may not be responsive, make your request by email so that you have a written, dated record that you brought it up.

Tip 5: Know about notice

There are four important situation where you or your landlord need to give notice.

When you want to move

If it’s time to move on from your current place, you need to give your landlord Notice to Quit. This means written notice that you are going to end your landlord-tenant relationship, at a specified time. If you are on a yearly lease, and you want to move out when the lease terminates, you need to give your notice three months in advance. If you are on a monthly lease, you need to give notice one month in advance. If you don’t give the proper notice, your lease will automatically renew for another term.

When you want to change your yearly lease to monthly

Oftentimes, landlords will insist on a yearly lease for new tenants – this is because it can be difficult for them to rent in the summer when many students leave the city and they need to secure that income. If you do start out with a year-to-year lease and want to stay, you can give your landlord notice that you want to switch to month-to-month, in writing, three months before the scheduled end of your current lease. The landlord cannot refuse this arrangement without reason.

When your landlord needs to enter your apartment

Once you have rented a space, you have a right to require your landlord to provide you with 24 hours’ notice in writing before entering. If your landlord doesn’t respect this right, you are totally within your rights to remind them and ask that they give you notice in future.  

The only time this rule does not apply is if you have given notice that you are leaving. In that situation, your landlord can enter without notice to show the apartment. Since it is mutually beneficial for you to have warning of when this may happen, you may be able to work out a schedule with your landlord, but it is not legally required.

When your landlord is evicting you

A landlord can give a tenant Notice to Quit in a number of situations. First, if you are 15 days late paying your rent, the landlord can give you a notice effective in 15 additional days. This means that you have 15 more days to pay the rent or move out. Another way a landlord can give you Notice to Quit is if you pose a threat or danger to other residents. In this situation, only five days’ notice is required.

There are a few other reasons that a landlord can give Notice to Quit, but for the most part renters in Nova Scotia now have “Security of Tenure” which means the landlord cannot give notice unless there are special circumstances.

Tip 6: Don’t get stuck paying for normal wear and tear

When you move in, your landlord can ask you to put as much as half of one month’s rent down as a damage deposit. This is money that you will get back, subject to any repairs that need to be made.  

Keep in mind that if you didn’t cause the damage, you don’t have to pay for it. Before you move in, you should walk through the place with your landlord and make note of any existing damage – you don’t have to pay to have those things repaired. Make a written list, and have your landlord sign and date it.

You also don’t have to pay for normal wear and tear to the apartment. While there is no set list of what may be included in this, it is important to know that you can raise it with your landlord. The landlord is also required to apply a fresh coat of paint when you move out, so this cannot be taken out of your deposit.

Tip 7: Don’t get stuck paying for your friends

Many students share apartments and houses with friends, but what happens when one friend can’t pay the rent?

In many situations, all roommates will sign the same lease. If this is the case, you may have to make up for your friend’s portion of the rent. To avoid this, some landlords will allow each roommate to sign a separate lease which makes them responsible solely for their portion of the rent. If you are not comfortable signing with your roommates, this is the only way to avoid liability for their compliance with the lease.

Tip 8: Check with the landlord about who and what can occupy

A situation may arise where a roommate moves out, or a significant other wants to move in, or someone wants to sublet for the summer. Always check with your landlord before changing either the number of occupants or who specifically will be occupying. This may not only allow you to avoid breaching something in your lease, but it helps foster a good relationship with your landlord.

In terms of pets, there is nothing in the Act prohibiting pets, but it also does not require the landlord to allow them. If you have or would like to get a pet, check your lease and with the landlord to see if there are any rules about what you can and can’t bring home.

For more information

If you have questions or need help, the Access Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies website has lots of information for landlords and tenants.
You can find information about off-campus living (including resources about moving and apartment listings) at Dal’s Off-Campus Living website.

If you think you may need to talk to a lawyer, the DSU retains a local lawyer on Friday afternoons for appointments with students.


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