Given the high property values in Vancouver, the people reading this column are likely tenants.
I worked at the Residential Tenancy Branch as an information officer for a summer during law school. Basically, I answered questions about tenancy law from landlords and tenants who telephoned, emailed, or dropped by our office.
Most landlords and tenants know little about residential tenancy law. Do yourself a favour and read the tenancy branch’s handy booklet.
Two commonly misunderstood areas of tenancy law are damage deposits and having your landlord make repairs.
What is a damage deposit? A damage deposit is a lump sum of money that you give to your landlord at the beginning of your tenancy and hopefully get back at the end of the tenancy. It provides your landlord with security in case you skip out on rent or cause damage to the unit.
How much is a damage deposit? The Residential Tenancy Act says that a damage deposit cannot be more than 50 percent of your rent. If you want to live with an animal companion, then the landlord can also take a pet deposit for an additional 50 percent of your rent.
If you’ve given your landlord too much money for your damage deposit or pet deposit, then read this fact sheet on how to get your money back.
What happens if your landlord wants to keep a part of your deposit at the end of your tenancy? You can say no. Landlords can only keep part of your deposit with your permission or with an order from the residential tenancy branch.
What if your landlord does not give your damage deposit back at the end of the tenancy? If you gave your landlord a forwarding address in writing (please do this), then your landlord must return the full damage deposit or make an application to the residential tenancy branch if they want to keep a portion.
Here’s the upshot: if your landlord does nothing for 15 days after receiving your forwarding address in writing, then you can seek double the damage deposit as a penalty.
What if your landlord does not fix something that is broken? You are responsible for repairing damage caused by you or your guests. If something breaks and it is not your fault, then you can ask your landlord to fix it. If the repairs affect your quality of life, then you can ask for your rent to be reduced until the repairs are made.
How do you get it fixed? Unless it is an emergency, do not make the repairs yourself and expect your landlord to pay you back. Instead, you write your landlord a letter explaining the situation and ask for your rent to be reduced until the repair is made.
For example, imagine that one of your five rooms becomes unusable because your landlord is not making repairs.
You can write to your landlord and ask for the repairs to be made. Ask for your rent to be reduced until the repairs are made. Always keep a copy of the letter, even if you are on good terms with your landlord. You may need it later.
How much should your rent be reduced? Since one of your five rooms is useless, you might ask for your rent to be reduced by one-fifth. If the room is really important, like the kitchen, then you might ask for your rent to be reduced by more than one-fifth. If your washer and dryer are not working, then you might ask for the cost of having your clothes cleaned at a laundromat. These are, of course, just examples; you will need to make your own arguments on how much you want your rent reduced.
Whatever you do, do not withhold rent if your landlord does not make repairs because your landlord can try to evict you for non-payment of rent. You must first get an order from the tenancy branch that allows you to withhold a portion of your rent until the repairs are made.
How do you get an order from the tenancy branch? You apply to the residential tenancy branch for a dispute resolution hearing. A dispute resolution hearing lasts an hour over the telephone. Before the hearing, you file the evidence you need to prove your case (pictures, letters you sent to your landlord, receipts, et cetera). A dispute resolution officer will listen to you and your landlord, look at the evidence that you filed and then make a decision.
There are two equally important unwritten rules to tenancy law. First, don’t be a jerk. Your landlord and neighbours will drive you crazy sometimes. Try to play nice and work it out on your own before going to the tenancy branch.
Second, cover your butt. Keep important conversations in writing. It might feel artificial and rude, but it’s important. I’ve seen many tenants lose dispute resolution hearings because they had no written record to back up their side of the story.
If you have a question about tenancy law, feel free to contact an information officer; it’s free.
In my next column, I will cover FAQs on eviction notices.
Joseph Fearon is a civil litigation lawyer at Stevens Virgin practising in the areas of personal injury and commercial litigation. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.