How to find a great apartment in Toronto on a budget

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Couple who lost hundreds to landlord says Tenancies Act is unfair

Devon Klaas gets "pretty confused" when she hears about rental horror stories in Toronto.

Since moving to Toronto in 2010, she's lived in five different apartments, from her days as a cash-strapped Ryerson University student living in a basement apartment in Scarborough, to renting with roommates, to living with her partner in a "bright and airy" downtown one-bedroom for $1,214 a month.

Through it all, Klaas says she's always had attentive landlords and has never entered a bidding war. And most recently, she and her partner got the keys to their new two-bedroom apartment in the Davisville area for a reasonable $1,400 a month — with rent control to boot.

Clearly, she's doing something right — so what's the secret?

Throughout CBC Toronto's No Fixed Address series, you've shared your stories of sudden rent increases, discriminatory landlords, and the other challenges that come with renting throughout the city. 

But others say finding a great apartment in Toronto's tough rental market can often be easier if you keep in mind some tried-and-true advice. CBC Toronto spoke to Klaas — and other savvy renters — for their tips on snagging a decent place to live without breaking the bank.

Check out older buildings

Condo listings are a dime a dozen in Toronto. But those glass towers are often built after 1991, which means they're not subject to rent control like older buildings — which could lead to higher initial rent, or a nasty surprise increase later.

To get more bang for your buck, Klaas says it's worth trying older buildings — like low-rise apartments — instead. Her last place, that $1,214 a month one-bedroom apartment at Carlton and Jarvis Streets, was an older spot with rent control, she says.

An added bonus? Older homes and apartment buildings are often owned by "career landlords" who are actively involved in maintaining the building, Klaas notes.

"They take good care of the buildings because that's their bread and butter," she says.

Or try almost-finished ones

On the flip side, renting a unit from a brand new building that's not even finished yet could also lead to a deal.

Toronto renter Ben Singer lives in a "pretty nice place" at St. Clair Avenue West and Avenue Road for under-market rent, and he says that's partly because he moved into the condo before it had the promised amenities and retail outlets.

"When I moved in, it was not exactly all finished — there was no LCBO, there was no Longo's — but I'm currently paying the early move-in rent and have the amenities one would be paying a lot more for," he says.

While Singer is paying $1,400 a month for his one bedroom, the average rent for similar units in the building is now upwards of $1,700, he says. (His rent could eventually go up because there's no rent control, of course.)

"It was worth putting up with a fair bit of construction," he adds.

Use a real estate agent

Singer also swears by the real estate agent who did all the legwork. And he didn't have to pay a penny for the service — the fees are actually paid by whoever is trying to rent out their unit.

"(Real estate agents) have the capacity to filter out a lot of stuff and save you a lot of time," Singer says.

Ana Yavari, who's also renting right now in Toronto, takes a slightly different approach: Rather than using one agent, she finds it helpful to scour websites like Condos.ca and reach out to the agent of a specific place that catches her eye.

"Your chances of snagging the unit before anyone else are much, much better," she explains.

Cast a wide net

There's a wide selection of websites, blogs, and Facebook groups available for Toronto renters, so it makes sense to check out as many as possible when you're looking for an apartment. 

Some of them even bring the search right to you, be it through Facebook notifications or email notifications at ViewIt or Condos.ca based on whatever criteria you choose, while others cater to specific needs, like roommate-finding service Apartmate.

A few of the big ones include:

You can also set up a personal Google Alert for any new listings featuring key words (like "1-bedroom, Danforth" for instance.)

Did we miss any? Shoot me an email at lauren.pelley@cbc.ca if you have a favourite rental website that's worth adding to the list.

Come prepared to viewings

When do you do find your dream place, it can be competitive — so it helps to come prepared to viewings with all the possible documents and references a landlord might want.

These are the big three you'll need at most viewings:

- Credit report

- References (personal, professional, past landlords)

- Proof of employment letter

Wondering how to get your credit report? Use this form to get yours for free in the mail through Equifax.

And it doesn't hurt to have a chequebook handy, too, in case you can sign off on the lease and provide cheques for first and last month's rent on the spot.

(However, if a landlord is asking for cold hard cash up front, you might want to steer clear — as a Radio-Canada investigation recently revealed, buildings across the city are using tactics that actually violate provincial tenancy laws.)

Be flexible

It's good to keep in mind your apartment deal breakers and neighbourhood preferences. But if you're on a budget, Klaas encourages keeping an open mind.

"Our secret was being flexible with what we wanted," she says. "We don't need a shoebox apartment in the young, trendy areas of the city."

Klaas is happy with her latest find — and her rental track record. But she knows things might get trickier down the road.

"Eventually trying to purchase a house, that seems scarier," she admits.