How to avoid living in a van down by the river

Don't get caught in 'feeding frenzy': comparison-shop for student housing

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A house

Flooded basements, rodent infestations, caved-in ceilings, belligerent landlords " Glenn Matthews has heard it all.

Matthews, a Housing Mediation Services officer who handled students housing problems for years, shared his knowledge with The Gazette to help students avoid common housing problems.

Matthews recommended completing thorough research before looking at houses or apartments. He said students often skip this step and dive right into the housing hunt.

“Students get caught up in the feeding frenzy,” Matthews said. However, he says there is no need to rush, as London’s 4.2 per cent vacancy rate is one of the highest in Ontario.

The Housing Mediation office in Room 102 of Elgin Hall provides numerous brochures and checklists. In particular, Matthews encouraged students to review the “Renting in London” booklet, which contains detailed information on bylaws and leases.

Matthews recommended investigating at least five places before signing a lease.

“Students tend to take the first or second place they look at,” he said. “Yet [they] won’t buy the first stereo or iPod they see…they comparison-shop.”

Matthews emphasized personal safety. He said students should ensure a house has adequate external lighting, proper locks and working fire alarms and should check for signs of leakage and flooding.

He encouraged students to prepare questions for the landlord before viewing a location. He also suggested speaking with the current tenants.

“Most student tenants won’t steer other students wrong,” Matthews said.

When speaking with tenants, students should discuss what the landlord is willing to do, such as shoveling snow or cutting grass. Matthews also recommends asking about utility costs and any problems the tenants had with the landlord or the building.

Matthews said landlords are more likely to bend the truth when faced with these questions.

“I equate it to a used-car salesman,” Matthews said. “There are some landlords out there who will say anything to get a name on a lease.”

Matthews said the incentives offered by landlords mean nothing unless they’re in writing, adding even something as simple as a lock change should be written into the contract.

Matthews recalled an incident in which a landlord never bothered changing the locks and friends of the previous tenants walked in on the new tenants without warning.

In addition to a written contract with the landlord, Matthews urged students to sign a roommate agreement.

“A roommate agreement gets things out on the table,” he said. Although it’s not legally binding, it forces all roommates to set ground rules, which can help resolve future disagreements.

Matthews advised investigating future roommates as much as the residence itself. Roommates should have similar standards in terms of cleanliness and be willing to share responsibilities and payments.

“Best friends don’t always make the best roommates,” Matthews said. “Baggage comes along with every individual.”

Though it may seem like everyone is signing a lease, most residences become available after March 1 " when the former tenants give their 60 days notice.

“[Students] will be able to find places up until they leave,” Matthews said.

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