Renters during the pandemic:The cost of moving during COVID

By: Jenelle Cameron

Renters during the pandemic:The cost of moving during COVID

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It may be a renters' market during the pandemic (hello, lower rent, bigger space!). But here’s what moving rentals right now is really like.

Before the pandemic, I had affection for my shoebox apartment in Toronto’s west end. Located in a bustling, hip neighbourhood, it afforded me close proximity to my office, friends, cafes, fitness studios and Instagram-worthy parks. Financially it was a win, too. I was able to split my (already low) rent with a friend thanks to a second bedroom. We each paid less than $1,000 per month for the space, including utilities, a number that would make many Torontonians burn with frugal envy. 

Then the pandemic hit. Home around the clock, I started noticing the constant noise pollution from the street below. It affected my sleep and my stress levels. The high-traffic elevators were a constant source of (justified) germophobia. Kids that would normally be in school ran up and down the hallway. All day. The attractive things about my hood (restaurants, friends, concerts) were all moot points now, too. And when my roommate was laid off and moved back to her hometown, my apartment was no longer a financial win. The idea of paying “double” my rent for a living space I already resented was untenable. Nearly a year after the pandemic began, I was wondering what I was still doing there and put in my two-months notice to find a new, hopefully better, place to live.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only person moving for these pandemic-specific reasons. Alessia and Lorena Sabatino, sisters who work as a team of sales representatives at Royal LePage Signature Realty in Toronto, say the pandemic has introduced new reasons for people to rethink their living situation. “A client of mine was living in a condo and working from home because of the pandemic,” says Alessia. “There was a GO train right behind the condo she would hear all the time. And she chose to cut her lease short because of it.” Another client in a basement apartment found that once she began working from home, she couldn’t stand the constant noise of the tenants above or the lack of natural light, and took the leap to move.
 

Is moving during COVID the secret to snagging a great deal?

While this wasn’t my main motivation to move, I knew people were leaving the city in droves, leading to low rental prices due to a simple excess of supply and a lack of demand. According to a report from Statistics Canada, from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020, Toronto lost 50,375 residents who moved to surrounding cities. And Montreal saw 24,880 people leave. The low demand translated to cheaper rents, especially in the condo market. According to the April 2021 Rental Report by the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, the average rent for a one-bedroom condo was down to $1,820, compared to $2,187 in the first quarter of 2020. Over that same time period, the average two-bedroom condo rent was down by 13% to $2,447, compared to $2,812. However, year-over-year, average rent prices did increase in Toronto, according to the the CMHC 2020 Rental Report. The average rent still increased by 4.7% to $1,523. In Montreal, average rent grew by 4.2% to $891. Vancouvers average rent also grew by 2% to $1,508, although that growth was slower than anticipated. In Edmonton, the vacancies grew to a whopping 7.2% and rent only increased by 0.8% and in Calgary, 6.6 % and the average cost of rent remained unchanged.

The Toronto rent costs were in line with what I saw during my own research for a new place to live. But most of the places I considered were priced somewhere around the middle. I also saw incentives offered by landlords, especially in the units downtown, like one month’s free rent, free utilities (hello, free internet!) and even cash incentives, like a $500 move-in bonusThe news reported that the uptick in rental vacancies was due to people no longer needing to be “downtown,” as condo renters were working remotely, university and college renters were attending classes online and many service industry workers lost their jobs. 

Other rental markets were affected, too. The rental market vacancy rate in our big cities grew from 2% in 2019 to 3.2% in 2020, and vacancy rates for Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (Canada’s three biggest metropolitan areas) increased to 3.4%, 2.7%, and 2.6% respectively, according to the same CMHC report.

The renters’ market at the beginning of the pandemic had opportunities for good deals, especially in the condo market,” says Lorena. “Now, we’re not seeing too many incentives.” As I combed through sites like Zumper.com, Rentals.ca, ViewIt.ca, TorontoRentals.ca and Padmapper.com, I noticed that nothing much had drastically changed since before the pandemic.

It was still difficult to find good apartments 

Keeping abreast of the ever-changing market was a part-time job. I set up email notifications for new properties on the above sites. And I even searched Craigslist.org. I had countless dead-end conversations with real estate agents and landlords and would end my nights scrolling through listings on my phone. 

After a month of searching, I had no real leads. I’d take time out of my day to view in person a place that looked promising online–only to find out that it was smaller than pictured, dingy or had another flaw, like a bedroom barely big enough to fit a twin bed. With two-month’s notice already handed in to my building’s management, it began setting in that this could be the worst possible time for me to move. 

However, hiring a real estate agent turned the process around for me. I connected with one about a place I was interested in and she had asked me a handful of questions about my work, my rental history and my credit score, and then she offered to help me find a place. The shocker for me was that you don’t have to pay the real estate agent (unless otherwise stated in a commission agreement). Typically, the landlord pays the real estate agent’s brokerage (50% to 100% of one month’s rent), and the listing agent gets a commission when the property is successfully rented. It’s more common to use a real estate agent to find a rental in urban centres than say the suburbs, but the option is worth seeking out.
 

Working with a real estate agent lightened the load

My real estate agent asked me questions to find out exactly what I wanted.

She narrowed down my options. I did veto units on higher floors, because I have a dog that needs to be walked multiple times a day. She didn’t waste time showing me places she knew I wouldn’t seriously consider. Then, she set up multiple appointments on the same day to make the best use of my time. I was no longer taking an entire afternoon to travel to see one potentially crummy property. It was like I had a matchmaker while, before, it was like I was aimlessly swiping through Tinder.

I lucked out with her. But I do think it’s important to find a real estate agent you feel comfortable with and who is responsive. You’ll be spending time with this person, trusting their opinion and having them potentially advocate for you in a negotiation for your dream place.

Beware of rental scams

Before COVID, a potential landlord making the excuse not to meet you or not to show the property before asking for payment would be an obvious red flag. But the pandemic restrictions have created new opportunities for rental scams. In fact, Toronto Police confirmed that pandemic rental scams are on the rise

With this in mind, I proceeded with caution. When one landlord wanted my name, record of employment and copy of my ID before he would schedule a viewing with me, I told him I was not comfortable giving him that personal information and decided to skip that viewing. 

Article by Moneysense.ca | Courtney Reilly- Larke