Tips from a long-time renter

Tips from a long-time renter

For many, renting is the way to go. While no one likes packing up and moving house, the experience of relocating makes one a savvy shopper. Here, long-time renter (and Ottawa Magazine art director) Jane Corbett shares what she has learned from renting in Ottawa at five addresses over 34 years

My first apartment was a basement bachelor within walking distance of the Experimental Farm. Rent was $210 a month, and the place came complete with a turquoise-and-chrome fridge and stove and powder-puff-pink bathroom fixtures. It wasn’t totally underground: the windows were all at ground level. I became really good at recognizing my friends by their footwear. It was basically a 14-square-foot room with a small kitchen off to the side, two closets, and a bathroom. It suited me well, since I had few possessions — and even less money, as I was working as a freelance graphic designer.


• Rent close to where your friends live. A spur-of-the-moment get-together is much easier if you can take a shortcut to your friend’s apartment.

• Live one bus ride away from the grocery store.

• If you don’t have a backyard, walk to green space where you can sit under a tree.

• Save your spare change in a Mason jar for laundry night. (And do your laundry regularly so that you don’t have to monopolize the machines.)

• A corner store within walking distance is a great thing.

• Go for walks in your neighbourhood on garbage night. You would be amazed at the good stuff people throw out.

• Don’t be afraid to have parties in small spaces. The best parties usually end up in one room anyway.

• When you’re young, no one minds sitting on the floor.

My second apartment was a two-bedroom on the 10th floor of a building with a balcony view of Dow’s Lake. The sunsets made the living room glow a rosy-pink colour. I shared this space with a roommate who did shift work. She had nicer furniture and more of it, so it worked out well. When she left to further her education in another city, I kept the place on my own for four more years. And yes, I had to buy some furniture.


• Buy a set of headphones so that you can blast your favourite tunes at any time of day, even if your roommate is sleeping.

• Establish a cleaning schedule early. That way, you always know when it’s your turn to clean the toilet.

• Make sure the pool and sauna are in working order and properly maintained. (Ask a resident who has lived there a few years.)

• It’s not a good idea to have a cat when you live on the 10th floor.

• Invest in a good vacuum cleaner — it’s worth every penny. (See above.)

• Think about the logistics of moving furniture in and out of the apartment. I once ordered a sofa bed that wouldn’t fit past a bulkhead at the entranceway that I had never noticed before.

• It’s not necessary to be friends with your neighbours, but it is good to be on speaking terms with your superintendent.

• You can afford to have the best cable package available when you are paying only half.

• Friends or family who stay longer than a week have to contribute to the rent.

My next move was to the second floor of an old house between Elgin and the canal. Rent was expensive, but it was my dream apartment, with hardwood floors, a fireplace, 10-foot ceilings, a south-facing bay window, and a sunroom with a French door off the bedroom. All this, and it was within walking distance of a full-time job.


• You can only ask your friends to help you move twice. After that, you have to hire movers.

• Be sure you have a working fireplace before you light a fire.

• Invest in a fire extinguisher.

• A split bathroom is a great idea, especially when you have guests.

• You’ll rarely use the sunroom, and it’s not worth the extra money.

• A vent over the stove greatly reduces cooking smells in the apartment.

• If you need to leave the building to do your laundry, you’ll need to buy a car.

• Get to know the other tenants in the house. That way, if you lock your purse and keys in the car, you will have somewhere to wait. (Remember, this was in the days before cellphones — and anyway, cellphones also get locked in cars.)

• Let your housemates know when you are having a party — or better yet, invite them.

After six years, I felt that too much of my paycheque was going to pay the rent, so I opted to live with a roommate again. We shared a three-bedroom house not far from CHEO. It had a huge yard with mature trees and a vegetable garden at the back. There was tons of storage space, a formal dining room, a huge living room, and a family room. We each had our own bathroom, and mine even had a full-sized tub. What a luxury after taking baths in apartment-sized tubs for so many years! I could finally stretch out my legs.


• A dishwasher is a wonderful invention.

• Having a roommate who travels frequently is almost like having the whole house to yourself (for half the rent).

• A quiet neighbourhood can sometimes be too quiet.

• Driveway snow-shovelling and autumn leaf-raking are great cardio workouts.

• Having a separate room for gift-wrapping and crafting makes a lot of sense.

• When nothing is within walking distance, you spend a lot of time in the car.

• You can eat only so many cherry tomatoes before you tire of them.

• Apartment insurance is a good investment.

• Ask which utility costs are included in the rent.

My final move — where I’ve lived for 19 years now — was back downtown to the main floor of an old Victorian house. It has a working fireplace, 10-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, laundry facilities in the basement, and parking. The back door opens to a small garden that is maintained by a part-time gardener. Best of all, the car is parked for most of the week. Almost everything is within walking distance — work, restaurants, grocery stores, theatres, and parks. The only drawback is that it’s north-facing. My landlord lives next door, which is a real bonus.


• When looking for an apartment, ask your friends if they know anyone who has a great apartment and is planning to move.

• Living downtown can be noisy, but it’s worth it!

• Good landlords will pay to have the apartment painted, and if they trust your design sense, you’ll even get to choose the colours.

• If the building is sold, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have to move. The new owners might be happy to keep a good tenant.

• Be on friendly terms with the other tenants. Learn their names if they stay longer than a year.

• Take pride in a clean entrance to the house.

• Don’t panic if a bat gets into your apartment through the fireplace. They are fairly easy to trap with a broom and a paper bag.