The Student Apartment Hunting Guide (Part 1: Searching for Your New Home)

Last March, after four years in residence, I finally made the decision to spend my fifth and final year in an apartment with some roommates. It was something of a harrowing decision. For as long as I’ve had friends who have lived in apartments or houses as opposed to campus residences, I’ve heard horror stories. Intrusive and unhelpful landlords, intolerably messy roommates, cockroaches swimming in the sink–you name it, I’ve probably got a friend who’s complained about it.

I was told that my first apartment was just going to suck no matter what. I was told to prepare myself for a year or two of crappy living conditions before I could find a place and some pals that would be halfway decent.

Oh, my well-meaning friends, how very wrong you were.

MY APARTMENT IS BOSS.

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The dining room/office area. It’s Saturday, and Sunday’s our cleaning day, which means this is as messy as it ever gets.
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If you look, you will see no fewer than EIGHT separate Lord of The Rings/Hobbit special edition DVD collections. We don’t call ourselves the Hobbits for nothing.
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My room. Not pictured: the real and actual cow skull that greets you when you first open the door.

It’s pretty and clean and well-lit and well-heated and close to a subway station and hey, we even have a balcony.

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Not that we’re planning on USING it any time soon.

And to top it off, my roommates are two of the most level-headed, reasonable, and considerate people I know. (Not to mention uncommonly attractive.)

So how did I get so lucky? Instead of being spooked by the stories of all my jaded friends and classmates, I took it as a challenge. I did my research. And I’m here to share my findings with you. Apartment hunting doesn’t have to be as stressful as it’s been made out to be: it can be exciting and fun, too!

Because there’s so much to cover in order to be a useful resource, this Guide will be a three-part series. In this first installment, we’re going to talk about actually finding an apartment, and the steps that go into securing it. The second installment will be an in-depth list of things to check when viewing apartments, alongside questions to ask a landlord. The third installment will be about choosing your roommates and developing systems that keep you all happy with each other. Without further ado, let’s get hunting!

Your Step-by-Step: The Process of Securing an Apartment

When I first got started, I didn’t even know about the different steps that were required to getting a place to live. In order to prevent overwhelm from the start, here’s a breakdown of all the phases you go through, from first opening Kijiji to the keys landing in your hand. (Note that this is a description of the process as it happens in Ontario, and specifically the GTA. I don’t think there will be much variation regionally, but it’s worth knowing.)

  1. First, you need to locate potential candidates for your apartment. Doing this is as easy as opening a web browser: Craigslist and Kijiji are two websites that offer tons of listings on places, but there are other options. More on this later!
  2. Contact the landlord or property owner to inquire about a viewing. The internet can only tell you so much about a place. If you really want to know what it would feel like to live somewhere, you need to stand there. Call the folks in charge and ask when they can meet with you. See if there are any regular viewing hours or open houses you can attend, too. Some owners will prefer to be contacted by email, but if you can do it, try and get them on the phone–it means you get immediate feedback instead of nailbiting for the four days it takes for them to get to your request in their inbox.
  3. Actually view the apartment. This is arguably the most arduous part of the process, because it involves leaving the house and physically going to the location of your candidate. You also have to do it for every apartment on your Maybe list. To do it effectively and to avoid wasting your own time, you’ll want to come to a viewing armed with a basic knowledge of what to check for, as well as a list of questions to run by the landlord.
  4. If you find an apartment you like, fill out the application. This is known as the Application for Tenancy, or the pre-tenancy application. The application is intended to help landlords/owners decide whether you’d be a good fit for the property. You can expect to fill out your contact info, your renting history, employment information, and reference letters/contact info. If you’re planning on having roommates, you are also supposed to name them on the application. Here’s an example.
  5. If the application is approved, you’ll be contacted to come in and sign the lease. There are stacks and stacks of information out there about apartment leases, so I will link to them and keep my advice short and sweet: READ. THE DAMN. LEASE. Read every serif of that thing, and ask questions if you don’t understand something, and, most importantly, remember you have the right to negotiate the terms of the lease until you’ve arrived at something you’re comfortable with. Note that as a student with no previous renting history and–probably–a pretty slim bank account, you might be required to list a guarantor/co-signor, a person who agrees to pay your rent if you are unable to. Not all properties/agreements will ask for this, but it’s good to be prepared!
  6. Once the lease is signed, your tenancy has begun! Or, it will, anyway, on the first day listed on the lease. On that day, you show up to the office of the property owner or landlord and receive your keys, and then it’s move-in time. Congratulations, you’re a tenant!

Not too tough, huh? But where do you start looking?

Apartments in Your Area: Tips & Resources for The GTA

  • As previously mentioned, online resources are huge for hunting. Craigslist and Kijiji are undisputably the biggest and most popular, but…
  • There are other options! For example, View It is the site that my roommates and I used to scour the Toronto Area for possible apartments; I liked that you could search by region and narrow down for price range and number of rooms. It eliminates a good 75% of the slog. Simone Garcia wrote an article on BlogTO listing a bunch of other great apartment rental websites that are Toronto-specific.
  • Open a newspaper! While we techsavvy folks are trawling apartment renting sites, there are classified ads sitting unread in any number of papers. This list of tips on Buzzfeed mentions that the apartments listed in classifieds are usually owned by elderly people–which often means a much better deal and much more pleasant interactions!
  • Ask your friends! While we used View It initially, in the end we got the apartment we did because Rachel had previously lived in a property with a specific owner (Pinedale, in case anyone’s wondering). I’ve also got a lot of friends at school who live in the complexes that Pinedale owns. Personal recommendations are still the most valuable thing to have when it comes to finding a fit for your personal preferences/income/etc. Use your network to see who’s got recommendations or other connections!
  • Lastly, an important thing: check all your possible pads on The Bedbug Registry. Yup, Toronto’s got quite a few places that are infested with little crawlers, and you do not want to end up signing the lease on one of them. For every address you consider, take the twenty seconds to check it against the registry. You’ll thank yourself.

From here, you should be able to whip up a sweet list of possible places to call home. Next week we’ll talk about how to separate the wheat from the real-estate-chaff when viewing your apartments!

Much love,

~Sisi

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