Nfld. & Labrador

When a scam hits home: St. John's man spots suspicious rental ad for his mom's house

During his six-month search for an apartment, Ronnie Gosse says he's had to sidestep apartment bidding wars, illegal requests from landlords and scams — including a rental ad offering up the house his mother owns.

Housing advocate Sherwin Flight says lack of housing could lead to more online scams

A row of colourful houses in downtown St. John's on a clear, sunny day.
As competition swirls for rental housing in the St. John's metro area, prospective tenants like Ronnie Gosse are encountering rental scams online. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Ronnie Gosse, a construction demolition supervisor living in St. John's, has been searching for an apartment since last Christmas. During the search, he's been staying at his mom's house in the centre of the city.

So Gosse was pretty surprised when he spotted a rental ad online for that very house.

"She doesn't have an apartment to rent. She only has a two-bedroom house," said Gosse. "And I know she's not renting to anyone."

Gosse decided to contact the person who posted the ad.

"I was leading him on a little bit, just to see what he would say," said Gosse. "And then right away, he asked me for a deposit on the place. He said, 'I can hold it for you today,'" Gosse said.

At that point, Gosse revealed he knew the rental ad showed his mother's house. In response, Gosse said, the person immediately blocked him on Facebook.

Gosse said he called the RNC about the ad. An officer said Gosse's case would be added to an ongoing investigation of rental ads, according to Gosse.

Given the current demand for rental housing in the metro area, Gosse fears more people will be vulnerable to this kind of scheme.

"It's scary because, you know, people who are trustworthy would go ahead and put a deposit down without even seeing or viewing the apartment or house," Gosse said.

"They could lose out on their money and then have to start all over again."

Bidding wars, rising rents and more

Gosse has been searching high and low for an apartment to call his own. And as a construction demolition supervisor, he has more cash to play with than some who are struggling to find housing; Gosse said he's willing to pay up to $1,700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. 

Still, Gosse isn't finding many rental options in the metro area. And in many cases, he said he thinks landlords are asking too much of prospective tenants.

"I know one place was looking for a credit check and I mean, that's fine and dandy," Gosse said. 

"But then they asked me for my social insurance number. And you and I both know the only ones who should have your social insurance number are the government or your employer for tax purposes," said Gosse.

A close-up of Ronnie Gosse's face. He is standing in a room with grey walls and dark blue cupboards.
Gosse has been looking for housing in the St. John's metro area since last December. (Submitted by Ronnie Gosse)

Another potential landlord said she'd drop by for monthly inspections without giving notice ahead of time, according to Gosse. That flies in the face of the Residential Tenancies Act, which says landlords must give tenants at least 24 hours of written notice before entering rental properties.

Then there's what Gosse is calling apartment "bidding wars." In some cases, he said, landlords aren't setting rental prices ahead of time. Instead, Gosse said, landlords are asking prospective tenants what they would choose to pay. 

"I think that's what's causing some of the increases in the rent prices," said Gosse, mentioning seeing a "pretty run-down" basement apartment going for $2,000 a month plus utilities. 

Scams, rising rent linked to limited housing supply

Sherwin Flight has been running the Newfoundland Tenant and Landlord Support Group on Facebook for almost a decade. He said the housing situation has become a lot tougher over the past year — and the lack of housing supply is his No. 1 concern.

"No. 2 would probably be affordability," Flight added. "Affordability has always been an issue for some people. But unfortunately when the supply of rental units goes down, the cost of those available tends to go up."

Sherwin Flight stands in front of a snowbank. He's wearing a blue baseball hat and a black winter coat.
Sherwin Flight is the administrator of a Facebook group dedicated to tenants and landlords. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Flight said the dwindling supply of rental units is likely spurring an increase in scams as well.

"We see a lot of questions in our group where people are saying, 'I saw this ad online and they want me to send a deposit,'" said Flight.

"It's always a big red flag if someone wants money before you've even seen the place."

Flight also cautioned about a rise in rental ads featuring photos and descriptions from real estate listings. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Flight said.

Flight would like to see tougher penalties for landlords and tenants who break rules in the province's Residential Tenancies Act. He'd also like to see more non-profit and social housing. But ultimately, he suggests that this problem could have a fairly simple solution.

"To improve the housing situation, I think we just need more housing," said Flight. "I really do think it's a supply issue."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andrea McGuire is a journalist working with CBC in St. John's.

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