Reasonable Doubt: Renters’ questions have answers

Given thehigh 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 straight.reasonable.doubt@gmail.com.

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.

Comments (13) Add New Comment
iSheep
The Tenancy Branch governing Landlords is a Joke at Best.

ANY DISPUTE should go straight to Small Claims Court if over $25,000 in Claims straight to the BC Supreme Court.

Tenants should AVOID BC TENANCY Dispute Resolution at ALL COSTS.

Look at the record of DISMAL Rulings going back 25+ Years!

Look at the Donkeys rendering those decisions that is the Clerks & Officials of BC Tenancy, its a JOKE!
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informed
except that you can't take landlord tenant matters to Small Claims court, because there's a statutory bar.
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Martin Dunphy
informed:

If, for example, you have been denied a refund by a landlord, as happened to a friend of mine, you take it to the residential tenancy branch (the main office of which the Liberals moved out of Vancouver to make it more difficult for renters to access), and, if the decision is in your favour, you then take it to small-claims court for enforcement and, if necessary, collection.
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Coach Dobbs
As a long time landlord I fully agree that the arbitration process is a joke. I follow the RTA closely and respect tenants rights but when a tenant does the midnight run, leaves dog shit throughout the house along with broken cabinets I expect that he should be responsible for some repairs...but wait...he tells the arbitrator the reason for the damage was that the house was old and probably not worth much..the.brain dead arbitrator agrees and rules that the tenant should not be responsible for cleanup of the dogshit, cost of a new window etc.
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Lawrence
I have been both a tenant and a landlord. With good tenants there is no stress. With bad tenants it is a neverending stress, then it is hard work in being a landlord. So what happens when the damage exceeds the damage deposit and the tenant leaves or you cannot get them to agree that they caused the damage and they refuse to pay for the damage. It takes a certain type of person to be a good landlord maybe one may have to be an bit of an asshole. I couldnt do it.
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Been there
I had the unfortunate experience to have the little word "shared" in the agreement with my first landlord. When I moved out she kept almost the entire damage deposit with unfounded accusations (I took pictures of the place) and the only way I would have been able to deal with the problem was through small claims court as the Tenancy Act doesn't cover those agreements.
As a student I had neither the time nor the added finances in order to get my funds back.
Thankfully I was able to warn the Student Housing department as I saw a listing on their board a few months ago that sounded awfully familiar. The ad did not mention that she was a hoarder with rat traps and poison around the premises. It also turned out that the local fire department knew the residence I spoke of when I showed them pictures of the place without stating where it was, out of concern for the safety of other residents there. Apparently she knew exactly what she could get away with as the fire chief was unable to enter without a warrant due to her entrances being the bare minimum clearance.
Lessons were learned and passed on to fellow students who were looking for accomodations to beware of the word "share".
The good thing out of the nasty situation is that my home now is in a beautiful neighborhood and I am blessed with an amazing landlady :-)
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@Lawrence

So what happens when the damage exceeds the damage deposit and the tenant leaves or you cannot get them to agree that they caused the damage and they refuse to pay for the damage.


You take them to arbitration through the RTO, provide the evidence of the cost of repairs, and win an award against them.

If they fail to pay, take the RTO monetary order to court and it can be enforced there.
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@Coach Dobbs

when a tenant does the midnight run, leaves dog shit throughout the house along with broken cabinets I expect that he should be responsible for some repairs...but wait...he tells the arbitrator the reason for the damage was that the house was old and probably not worth much


Again, you should have photos of all damage + receipts for repairs & cost of cleaning (or estimates from a company if you do it yourself).

The situation you describe ought to be an easy win; I cannot help but think that there's more to the story, i.e. you didn't have photos, tenant denied it, therefor DRO (Dispute Resolution Officer) cannot find your claims proven.
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checklist, checklist, CHECKLIST!
The single most important thing one can do is print out the checklist available from the RTO and, upon moving in, do a walk-through (landlord & tenant together) and note any deficiencies (any damage to anything of any sort).

Then, upon moving out, take the original (both parties should have a copy), and a fresh print-out, and re-do the inspection.

Any new damage not noted on the first inspection report is the tenant's responsibility. Easy.

This is the single most important thing that needs to be done, I can't emphasize this enough.

Next most important: don't be stupid, and finally, give and demand some respect.

Final finally: read the linked-to guide. The act is surprisingly reasonable, not terribly hard to understand, and makes you forewarned on what needs to be done.


IANAL,

Ronald
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Janice Halligan
The Act itself is pretty good at protecting both landlords and tenants rights. When they abide by it. But the RTB and their processes are indeed inconsistent in their comprehension (seriously, the arbitrators should be more than the equivalent of high school principals and should be required to have some kind of legal training ... paralegal, lawyer, etc) and application of the Act and even their own (RTB's) rules (Regulation as well as their internal processes and self-imposed deadlines etc) is ridiculously inconsistent.

How do they get away with this? The most outrageous part of the quasi-judicial tribunal that is the RTB in BC is that it operates behind closed doors. This must be changed before the public can have any faith whatsoever that even QUASI-justice is being administered by this body. How the h*ll BC managed to allow this to take place (not sure when it all changed ... have only been in BC for a handful of years at this point) is beyond me. Were all the government watchdogs asleep? No... the reason this got to be the mess it is (and a very biased mess it is ... not the legislation but the application, interpretation and lack of accountability of the RTB arbitrators for their judgements; this is where the biggest problems are for tenants BTW) is that people (voters) are generally not tenants and that a lot of tenants in Vancouver and Victoria are students who are only here for a short time.

It has to change. Even in the short time I've been here and aware of the problems (through personal experience) I have learned that I am far from a lone critic. Something's got to give and soon.
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@Janice Halligan

the arbitrators should be more than the equivalent of high school principals and should be required to have some kind of legal training ... paralegal, lawyer, etc


I thought they were trained. Have you anything that indicates otherwise?

Even the author of this article was on summer break during law school when he worked at the RTB and that was as an information officer, not a DRO.


the RTB in BC is that it operates behind closed doors.


Not sure that I agree with that - their decisions are required to cite the relevant parts of the act so it is clear for all to see how they arrived at their decisions.


but the application, interpretation and lack of accountability of the RTB arbitrators for their judgements;


Their judgments are appealable within the RTO (I won a point of contention this way myself) and have been taken to Provincial Court on appeal as well, where a "real" judge will review the decision.

Here's a link to some decisions that made it to court (not all these decisions are residential tenancy disputes):

http://www.bcjustice.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout...


Ronald
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Dave Wilk
When it comes to "room" rental,there is no area of law that a renter can turn
to.Room rentals are not covered in the residential act.Renters are at the mercy of the wind when it comes to this,and are being abused.When renting a room,the owner of the house can literally go into the rented room,take or destroy things leaving the tenant high and dry with no recourse.It is a bad idea for anyone to rent anything that is not covered by the act as it is the tenant that will lose...always.Room rental needs to be covered by some type of law,but it is not.
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JF
@Janice: It's true. Not all arbiters have formal legal training; they do not need to be lawyers or paralegals. This can present problems in the decision making process. I suspect that the gov. justifies it by the cost savings. Tribunals are meant to offer a more informal and cheaper form of "justice".

@Dave: When a renter shares a kitchen or bathroom with the owner, then the same RTA protections do not apply so they are left in a more vulnerable position. But they would still have protections afforded through the law of contract. I agree that this is an area of the law that may need to be reformed.

The RTO decisions can be appealed through the RTO but only for limited reasons. You can also do a judicial review through the Courts, but again, the areas of appeal are limited and it would likely be costly. The end result is that it is difficult to appeal RTO decisions.

@Ronald: I agree, the checklists are very important. Thank you for pointing that out.
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