8 smart questions to ask before you rent or buy

April 7, 2017 by Nicole Bogdanovic

When my niece and her husband found an adorable, two‐bedroom home in an idyllic Okanagan orchard for low rent, they thought it would be the perfect place to start their life with their newborn son. The dream became a big headache when their landlord presented them with the utility bills.

Turns out the drafty old‐timer home was costly to heat. The old natural gas furnace did a poor job of keeping up so the couple added electric space heaters to keep the home more livable during the cold winter months. Even when they unplugged the space heaters and bundled up in sweaters, the inefficient electric water heater was still having a big impact on their electricity costs.

And these were unexpected bills. In her verbal agreement with her landlord, her understanding was that utilities were included in the rent.

It was a tough lesson for her and her new family.

“It took us a long time to catch up, it was a really hard time for us,” she said. “We were first‐time renters so we didn’t know what to look for, but we learned fast and started looking immediately for a home that was more manageable to heat.”

Her story is far too common. A tight housing market can limit options for renters and first‐time homebuyers, but in terms of overall affordability, it’s important to know what you're getting into before you move in.

My niece now asks lots of questions about a home’s energy use before she signs a lease. Here are some questions to consider if you're planning a move of your own:

  1. Who’s paying the utility bills? This could be the most important question. Is it you or the landlord/strata? And if it’s the landlord, make sure you have it in writing.
  2. What services are in the home? Is it just electricity (sometimes referred to as ‘hydro’) or also natural gas? In addition to lights, electronics and appliances, electricity is sometimes used for space heating and water heating. But at current rates, it’s often more affordable to heat your home and water with natural gas. If your home has natural gas, you may also have added benefits like a natural gas fireplace or stovetop.
  3. What’s heating the home? With space heating accounting for more than 50 per cent of the energy used in a home1, it’s critical to understand what’s being used to heat the home because some heating systems are more affordable to operate. If the home has a unit in a basement or utility closet, you probably have central heating with a furnace. If it’s long metal units typically running along the floor boards under windows, you have zoned (room‐by‐room) heating with electric baseboards. At current natural gas and electricity rates, electric furnaces are the most costly central system to operate and electric baseboards are the most costly for zoned heating2.  Electric baseboards are also the most common heating system found in older apartments, but many conscientious builders are now making natural gas available to individual suites. If natural gas is not available, air source heat pumps are a more affordable alternative to baseboards2.
  4. What’s heating the water? Next to space heating, water heating is the second largest energy user in your home. Some buildings have a central water heating system, so these costs may be included in your rent or, if you’re a condo owner, your strata fees. Like space heating, it's currently more affordable to heat water with natural gas.
  5. Is the home well insulated? Older homes are usually less able keep the heat in. Drafts and poor insulation can make the home more costly to heat. When you inspect the property, look for obvious cracks around doors, windows and vents and check if there are proper seals around doors and windows. Any frost or condensation on windows is a sign of heat loss. And ask about insulation, especially in the basement or crawlspace and attic.
  6. When were the heating appliances last serviced? Landlords should have the furnaces and water heaters serviced every year to make sure they are running safely and efficiently. Natural gas appliances should only be serviced by a qualified natural gas contractor.
  7. Who replaces the furnace filters? Furnaces push air through a filter as part of their normal functioning. This filter becomes filled with dust and other debris over time. Regardless of whether you or your landlord do the job, to maintain healthy clean air in the home and for the furnace to work efficiently, it’s important to replace the filter every three months, especially during the heating season. Filters can be purchased in bulk at local hardware stores.
  8. How much are the utility bills? While each family uses a home differently, if the previous tenant (or landlord if the account was in their name) is willing to share this information with you, it can help you determine if the home is in your budget.

Bonus question ‐ how do I get help? If you’re already in a home and need help managing your utility bills, we recommend contacting us to set up an equal payment plan. You can also sign up for Account Online so you can track your energy use. If you need help making your home more energy efficient, we also offer Energy Saving Kits and the Energy Conservation Assistance Program to income-qualified customers.

My niece and her growing family now live in a better insulated duplex with a natural gas furnace and water heater. Even though the rent is higher, their overall costs are reduced and their home is more comfortable. To be energy savvy, they continue to reach for sweaters instead of space heaters when the weather gets cold.



1Source: 2012 FortisBC Residential End-Use Survey for Electric-Only Single-Family Dwellings. Electrically heated house: 20,800 kilowatt hours per year average use. Home heating energy usage will vary depending on the air tightness, insulation, temperature setpoint and location of your home. A typical household is defined as an existing single family house approx. 2,300 square ft. with average insulation. 
2These are approximate annual costs for space heating of a typical household in the FortisBC electric service area and assumes that electrically heated homes also have electric hot water. Calculations compare the most energy-efficient heating equipment currently available for natural gas furnace heating, electric resistance heating, oil furnace heating and propane furnace heating. The calculations are based on FortisBC natural gas rates as of January 2017, electricity rates as of January 2017 and heating and propane rates as of July 2016. These include applicable carbon tax. Savings may vary by household and do not include potential rebates and/or incentives.

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