By Antonia Mah, TAPS Tenant Legal Advocate
It may seem like a simple problem, but one of the most common calls we receive from tenants are from those who agreed to sign a document their landlord gave to them and are now worried what kind of legal consequences they might be facing. In Victoria, tenants face a huge power imbalance when dealing with landlords because of how difficult it is for the average renter to find housing within their budget. This can create a lot of anxiety whenever a tenant interacts with their landlord, and again and again folks sign things in the heat of the moment that they later regret.
Nowadays it is common for a landlord to show up unannounced at a tenant’s door with a new rental contract in hand, asking their tenant to sign it. However, depending on the kind of tenancy agreement you have, it may not be in your best interest to sign. When you are renting from a landlord and sign a new tenancy agreement for your same rental unit, the new agreement replaces whatever terms were initially agreed to on the previous contract, including your rent rate. Tenancies under the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) either consist of a tenant paying rent indefinitely on a periodic basis until the tenancy is ended by the landlord or tenant (periodic/month-to-month), or are for a set amount of time that is determined at the outset of the tenancy (fixed term). If you are renting on a periodic basis with no fixed end-date to your tenancy, you are under no obligation to enter a new rental agreement with a landlord. The terms of your tenancy agreement would continue until you or the landlord tried to end the tenancy, so you may decline to sign a new rental agreement if you do not want these terms to change. If you are renting a suite with a fixed end-date, you may be getting anxious that the end-date is approaching, but as of 2017 a landlord can only require a tenant to vacate at the end of a fixed term if the landlord or a close family member will be moving into the rental suite. If the landlord is not saying that they or a close family member will be moving in, the tenancy agreement automatically becomes periodic at the end of the fixed term. It is not necessary for a brand new rental agreement to be drafted to convert the tenancy from fixed term to periodic, your same tenancy agreement stands unless you and your landlord sign a new one with new terms.
If signing a new tenancy agreement at the start of a tenancy, we recommend reading through for any terms that you are not expecting, or language that suggests the rental arrangement is not covered by the RTA. There are many kinds of living accommodations that fall outside of the RTA, such as student housing, vacation rentals, emergency shelters, or long-term care facilities. If you see a term that says the contract is not covered by the RTA, you may seek legal advice from an organization like TAPS for assistance assessing what kind of rights you will have.
Another document that is commonly presented to tenants is the mutual agreement to end tenancy. This can happen on a Residential Tenancy Branch form, or some other written contract, but it means you and the landlord have agreed that your tenancy will end on a certain date and time. An agreement like this is only legally binding if you and the landlord both consent, so the fact that your landlord is asking for a signature is a good indication that you may have the option to politely decline. Sometimes landlords will suggest a mutual agreement to end the tenancy as an alternative to them serving an eviction notice. In this situation, you may wish to agree to end the tenancy to spare being given an eviction notice, or you may prefer an eviction notice because you can dispute it if you disagree with it and want to try and stay. With a mutual agreement to end tenancy, or any document for that matter, it is extremely challenging to overturn a document once it is signed, unless you didn’t have capacity to make decisions for yourself in the moment, were the victim of fraud, or signed under duress. To meet the requirement for duress you would need to be under a threat of some kind, and simply being afraid of losing your housing generally does not amount to duress.
The rule of thumb is to read it over, multiple times if necessary, and don’t feel like you need to sign on the spot. It’s okay to say that you need to sleep on it or seek legal advice. Better to be cautious and ask questions than find surprises in a document that is already signed.