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Tenants’ Commandments 

Move over Moses, We've got other rules—13 of ’em— to live by. A students’ guide to not getting screwed by your landlord.

Long, long ago, back when people used to stay home on weekends to watch Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy donned a striped jumpsuit to play Tyrone Green, a poet-inmate whose jailbird recital, “Kill my landlord. Kill my landlord.

C-I-L-L my landlord,” spoke to traumatized victims of dirty hallways and broken toilets everywhere.

Of course, killing people is not cool, but arming yourself with information about tenants’ rights might save you some cash and a few murderous thoughts along the way.

1. All tenants and landlords must play by rules set out in Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act. While it’s not dazzling party conversation material, it’s good to know the basics: go to to review. If you’re scratching your head wondering if the Act was written by a smart-ass robot, Dalhousie Legal Aid has prepared an amazing in-depth guide, online at

2. Anyone enjoying their ramen noo dles over at Fenwick, or any other fine university residence, is not covered by the Tenancies Act. You must take up any concerns with your selected home of higher learning. Lucky you.

Lenny & Karl3. Before you get charmed by an apart ment’s hardwood floors or the cutie upstairs, write a list of priorities of what you need in a home. Include items to watch out for such as hot water, working light switches, alien bug pods, et cetera. Print it out and take it with you when you go hunting. A tip from a seasoned renter: attach it to a clipboard. It’s easier to write on, and you’ll impress prospective landlords with your dorky organizational skills. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions!

4. Always, always, always read the lease before you sign it. Basically your lease is a binding pre-nuptial agreement except no one wins the car or Nana’s china. It sets out the rules of the relationship and what happens when they’re broken. Be sure that you understand exactly what is included in the rent (hot water, heat, parking, electricity) or if there are any rules that you can’t live with (pets prohibited).

Classic stoop (aka ass wagon)5. There’s the little matter of the secu rity deposit. Designed as a safety net against tenants with rock ’n’ roll, drywall-wrecking lifestyles, it is not to cover keys, carpets or fire extinguishers. The deposit can be no more than half of one month’s rent (e.g., $300 on a $600/month rent) and must be paid back with interest (one percent) by the landlord within 10 days of the end of your tenancy, assuming you leave the place in the same condition you found it.

6. Try not to be shocked by tip num ber six: Landlords want to make money. And how do you make money as a landlord? You raise the rent. And they will, oh yes, they will. But it can only be raised once every 12 months and you must receive notice: four months if you’re on an annual or monthly arrangement, eight weeks for a weekly arrangement. Here’s the kicker—your rent can increase to any amount that Scrooge McDuck pleases. In other parts of the country, there is a wonderful little law called rent control, but alas, we’re behind in that department. At least you have four months to find a new, cheaper place, if necessary.

Garden Gnome7. During winter’s chill, some landlords might rethink that “all inclusive” arrangement, especially after they receive their first shocker of an oil bill. If your landlord says that they’re no longer going to pay for your oil or electricity, they are allowed to do so, however, they must give you the same notice as they would a rent increase (see tip number six). Same rules apply: if they’ve already raised your rent within the last 12-month period, they must continue to pay for the amenities outlined in the lease.

8. It all started when Sally ate your yogurt, and now you’re not speaking. Johnny, sick of the tension, has decided to move out. If you are the big chief responsible for collecting the monthly rent, technically you may be considered a landlord too. Protect your wallet by writing up a lease between you and your roommates.

The Grotto9. Don’t think you’re off the hook if all of you signed the lease and pay the landlord individually. This is what is painfully known as “jointly and severely liable.” Basically, a landlord can still take you to a Residential Tenancies hearing for unpaid rent, and in return, you may end up taking your roommates to Small Claims Court to collect owing cash. Not cool.

10. Have you seen the movie Pacific Heights with Michael Keaton as the scariest, creepiest, cockroach-training tenant ever? You really don’t want to sublet your apartment to Michael Keaton, so the best way to avoid that situation is to “assign” your lease instead. This means that a new tenant completely takes over the time remaining on your lease. You get your security deposit back (or receive the same amount from the new tenant), and you’re off the hook for the apartment.

11. Landlords must allow you to sublet or assign your lease. The landlord has the right to approve of the new person based on non-discriminatory factors (they can say no because of sketchy income sources, but not because you’re a student or your face is tattooed). You may get charged up to $25 for the transition, but only if it costs the landlord for the new tenant to move in.

12. If we’ve learned anything from Brad and Jennifer it’s that, sometimes, break-ups happen to nice people. Eventually you are going to want to get out of your lease. If you are on a yearly lease, you must give three month’s notice before your anniversary date. If you pay on a month-to-month basis, you only need to give one month’s notice.

13. If you ever find yourself in a nasty situation, there are places to turn for help. Dalhousie Legal Aid (423-8105) offers weekly drop-in sessions at various locations around town. Or you can go right to the man: Access Nova Scotia (424-5200) has the complete lowdown on the Residential Tenancies Act.

Originally published September 1, 2005.

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