How to deal with a cold apartment, rooming house room, or rental house

One of my most popular pages, on energy efficient electric heaters, seems to draw a lot of traffic from people living in rental units who are struggling to keep their apartment warm without spending a fortune on heating bills.

The fact is that in most jurisdictions, landlords who require the tenant to pay heating costs don’t have much of an incentive to provide a well-insulated home or efficient heating equipment. Windows are leaky, do not have proper thermal insulation between the panes, and don’t have low-e coatings to prevent heat radiating out from within. Walls have poor insulation or none at all. Doors have gaps around the edges. That leaves you, the tenant, either freezing in your own home, or spending a fortune on heating, or trying to find an electric heater that won’t send your electricity meter spinning at sixty miles an hour!

But necessity is often the mother of invention, and people often find innovative ways to cut their rental unit heating costs. As someone who has lived in a rental apartment in a high rise, a rental apartment in a house, a couple of rental homes, and a prefab home, I know a few things about how to cut down on heat loss.

Landlords have certain legal obligations: Make sure you understand your legal position relative to your heating bill and your landlord. Do you have a written lease or rental agreement? If not, you should consult your state or provincial government website to understand what the default lease conditions are for a residential unit. In most jurisdictions, in the absence of a lease, the law itself will describe what arrangements apply to rental unit heating costs. Also, bear in mind that what appears in a lease is not necessarily legal; most leases state (and all imply) that in the case of disagreement between the lease and the law, the law wins.

For example, your landlord cannot bill you for electricity used to heat your home if there is no way for you to know the amount of electricity consumed, unless the lease describes the arrangement to be used. A few years back, the owners of a number of large highrise apartments in Toronto sent bills to their tenants for the assumed cost of heating the apartments with electricity, even though there was nothing in the tenants’ leases requiring them to pay this cost. Many tenants paid out of fear of eviction, but there was no legal requirement for them to do so.

As another example, in rentals where the landlord is responsible for covering the cost of heating, most jurisdictions have rules about when the heat must be on and what the minimum temperature must be maintained at. If your heat is not turned on by the landlord in this time, or is not at the desired temperature in your apartment (assuming your windows and doors to the outside are all closed), you should inform your landlord, and failing action on their part, your municipal or state/provincial government department responsible for renters’ rights.

Landlords can benefit from energy efficiency upgrades: Landlords can write off the costs of energy efficiency upgrades against the income they get from rent (which is one reason you should insist on paying your rent by cheque, not in cash – if you pay in cash they have no incentive to declare the income, so they can’t write off part of it on the cost of upgrades). In some areas they can even get government or utility rebates for certain upgrades that improve efficiency. But more importantly, a unit that is more energy efficient is a more attractive property to future prospective renters. Your landlord probably doesn’t expect you to live in your unit forever; many renters move out within 1-5 years of moving into an apartment, and most energy efficiency upgrades provide a benefit for 20 years or more. So try to sell your landlord on the benefits to them of the upgrade: not only will it lower your heating costs, making you more willing

Windows are a big source of heat loss: If you can cut the heat loss through your windows, you will make a big impact on your heating bills. You can do this easily with a couple of inexpensive products: plastic window insulation which can quickly be applied to a window (adding extra insulation and reducing drafts), and removable caulking, which you can apply in the fall around window edges (anywhere you feel a draft), and which peels easily off again in the spring. The caulking at left works well.

You should also consider energy saving window coverings such as curtains and blinds, which if properly installed can add an extra layer of insulation on any window. While most renters are not going to want to spend a fortune on the latest in honeycomb blind technology, a decent set of drapes or curtains does make a difference.

Draftproof your door: Another point of heat loss is your apartment door, if it opens to the street or a cold hallway. You can draftproof your door with a relatively inexpensive kit (perhaps you could ask your landlord to cover the expense, if you provide the labor to install it). But at the very least you can place an old rolled up towel at the base of the door when you lock up for the night – this will cut down on drafts coming in.

Close off unused rooms: If there’s a room in your home or apartment that isn’t used much, turn off the heat to the room (close the heating vent, or turn off the electric heat), and shut the door.

Buy a sweater: Finally, don’t forget that comfort is a state of mind – if you dress warmly inside, as I do, you can be quite comfortable in a 66F house. I wear socks and shoes or slippers on my feet, and a sweater or fleece, whenever I’m inside my 66F house, and I’m always comfortable. As for sleeping, pajamas and a good down fleece are a great way to cut on heating costs at night; in our house the heat drops to 58F at night and we sleep marvelously.

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