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Dressed to Rent
How dressing up (or not dressing up) could help you score that perfect Toronto apartment

I moved to Toronto from Vancouver five years ago, and I’ve lived in 10 apartments so far. Ten. I am not by nature, someone who likes change, but rather a victim of circumstance I suppose. A homophobic roommate and a horrible breakup here, a terrifying mobster landlord who was always “out of the country” there, and today I find myself in lucky apartment 10. But, as is the case with most looking for housing in Toronto, finding it wasn’t without a train of endless phone calls, some tears, and a lot of outfit changes.

The hunt for apartment 10 began in early July, the culmination of three sleepless months living above a household of hoarders who played every musical instrument they could, terribly, at any hour they saw fit. My partner and I dove headfirst into the game, searching out every relatively appropriate listing we could find on Craigslist, Kijiji, View It, PadMapper (the best by far), and even Facebook. We called and emailed with the vigour of someone who has just spotted their perfect match through online dating, scheduled a few viewings and got everything in order to prepare: pick up blank cheques from the bank, arrange references, and plan our outfits.

My partner and I love getting dressed up, we just can’t help it. We always coordinate (regardless of if we’re trying or not) and sometimes one of us has to return to the bedroom and change because we’re dressed too hilariously alike. For the apartment viewings, we wanted to look perfect. Our logic was, if we looked undeniably adorable and put together, who wouldn’t want to give us a home?

Our first outfit pairing was filled with excitement, hopefulness, and maybe a bit too much naivety. Me in fancy silk shorts and a collared shirt with a brooch, my partner in a button down and dress pants, we went wide eyed in amazement through unit after unit, part of a seemingly endless parade of people doing the exact same thing in much more casual attire. Dressed in perfectly coordinated cutesy outfits, we hoped our clean responsible appearance would help us stand out. The insane turnout scenario however rendered our outfits basically invisible; all that mattered was our application form, and in a pile of 50-plus, we weren’t even close to the most impressive. 

The next few units had less applicants, but again our outfits seemed to be of no assistance. In a small group, we stood out clearly as the ‘creative’ couple, and it was automatically assumed we were unstable undesirable renters, though neither of us have ever even come close to paying rent late. For example, we found the perfect apartment during another binge of internet searching, called the landlord immediately, and scored the holy grail of Toronto apartment hunting: a private showing. Anxious to live up to my cheerful phone persona, I carefully curated a doll-like outfit consisting of an A-line swan printed skirt, a sheer button up collared blouse with a light black cardigan, lace up oxford shoes with cream lacy socks, and a 50s-style doctor bag I borrowed from my friend because none of my purses felt serious enough. My partner was similarly dressed to impress in black wool dress pants (even though it was July), a freshly ironed white collared shirt, and a pink bowtie that matched my hairbow. Our appearance and demeanour were so perfectly crafted it was as if we had popped from a scene of Mary Poppins. We felt so ready.

The landlords, quite obviously, were not impressed. They drove up in a huge Lincoln dressed in decidedly casual serious people clothing. An older couple from Etobicoke, the people I’d thought I really connected with over the phone looked at my partner and I as if we were aliens. They scanned us up and down, struggled profusely with my partner’s gender ambiguous nickname “Em,” and couldn’t understand what either of our jobs really were or how we made money. At one point they even questioned my partner about his career as if they thought he had made it up. We left feeling trampled and let down; we tried so hard to be perfect and it still wasn’t enough. Regardless, we paid the $75 “application fee”, sent in all the necessary paperwork, and waited. We never heard a word back. Even at our best, we were still too different to be considered for this couple’s Parkdale property.

Finding an apartment in Toronto is like applying for a job you know you don’t have the credentials for. The power chasm between landlords and tenants is undeniable, and sometimes even when you do everything right, getting a new home is based on a series of flaming hoops most people can’t jump through. Over the course of our hunt we saw incredibly detailed application forms, underwent credit checks and submitted social insurance numbers, paid pointless fees for “the landlord’s processing time,” and even witnessed other potential tenants offer large sums of bribery money to up their chances of signing a lease. Even if we didn’t want the apartment, even if it was a stretch to try and make it work, we still didn’t stand a chance as a creative couple dressed in pastels. Someone more serious with more money and a better set of references was always chosen.

After what felt like an endless train of failures, we (sort of) struck gold. During an early morning PadMapper check, my partner came across a pet friendly listing not far from our current place with a yard that had just been posted that morning. We called immediately and arranged a time only half an hour away to ensure we’d be the first to view the property. We scrambled like crazy and ended up arriving on time looking, in my books at least, like we’d just rolled out of bed.

I felt lazy and slobby in my oversized sweatshirt, trying to hide my chipped nail polish as the agent showed us the unit. Our demeanor and look truly reflected the exhaustion and hopelessness we were feeling, a far cry from the bubbly pair that had first started sniffing out “ViewIt” signs. But for reasons unknown to me, she seemed really impressed with us, this denim clad sleepy couple, and within a few days we had signed a lease. In the end, we were chosen not because we had tried hard to stand out, but because we looked and acted like everyone else. Maybe when it comes to vying for approval of a landlord in a market seriously lacking in options, boring is best. 

____

Alyssa Garrison is a Toronto-based writer who also contributes to Worn Fashion Journal and xoVain. Follow her on Twitter at @R_A_O_P.

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