Rental Maintenance and Repair

Introduction

As owners of rental property, landlords have a variety of maintenance and repair obligations that they are responsible for.  In basic terms, landlords generally have a legal obligation to their tenants to provide a rental unit that is habitable (in other words, something fit for a person to occupy).  State laws do differ somewhat on what it means for a rental unit to be “habitable”, but the general concept is that rental properties should be fit for human occupancy and safe from unreasonable risk of harm.  The legal duties of landlords to repair and maintain rental property are discussed below, as are the consequences of a landlord’s failure to comply with these legal requirements.

Landlords Duties of Repair and Maintenance

What exactly does it mean that a landlord has a legal duty to ensure that its rental property is ‘habitable”?  In general, this would include basic items such as maintaining common areas, making sure the plumbing is in working order and that there is electrical service, heat and adequate water supply.  In addition, if there are appliances in the rental property, those need to be in working order and there must not also be any conditions that pose an unreasonable risk of harm to tenants.  Heating and plumbing are some of the more critical items that would require a landlord to react quickly if those items do not work.  The landlord’s duties in this area are ongoing. When a tenant moves in, all these items must be in working order and the property must be habitable.  In addition, as issues arise while the tenant lives in the property, the landlord must promptly repair those items as well.  For example, in the winter, if the furnace stops working, the landlord must get that item taken care of in short order.  Similarly, if there is no water service to a property or the plumbing is not operational, those basic sanitary and safety issues must be addressed nearly immediately.  Landlords are also required to address other more minor maintenance and repair issues, but the time-table on those may not be quite as urgent.  Thus, the duty to provide habitable premises is ongoing, and continues as new issues may arise.

Tenant’s Duty to Provide Notice to the Landlord of Maintenance and Repair Items

On the other side of this issue, tenants also have an obligation to notify landlords if a condition occurs that is causing the premises to be uninhabitable.  If a tenant fails to notify the landlord of a maintenance or repair issue, the tenant may bear some responsibility for damage to the property that occurs as a result of the failure to notify.   Most state laws also require landlords to provide reasonable notice to tenants if there is a maintenance or repair issue that is going to be fixed in the tenant’s rental premises.  In a usual case, 24 hours’ notice is required unless there is an emergency repair that needs to occur in which case such notice requirements do not apply.

Consequences of a Landlord’s Failure to Comply with the Duties of Repair and Maintenance

If a tenant has notified a landlord of a repair or maintenance issue and the landlord fails to make the necessary repairs in a timely fashion, the landlord may face several consequences.  In some states, if a landlord has failed to provide such basic items as heat, water or plumbing, a tenant may elect to withhold rental payments until the repairs are made.  In some cases, creative tenants try to use this sort of system simply to avoid paying rent when they do not have the money to do so.  For this reason, some states require tenants to put their rent payments in an escrow account so that once the landlord makes the repairs, the funds are released to pay the rent owed to the landlord.  The withholding of rent does not work however in situations where the tenant is facing eviction for non-payment of rent and attempts to use maintenance issues as a defense to eviction, particularly when the tenant has not given advance notice of the need for any maintenance or repairs. 

Tenant may hire a third party to fix the issue

Another option that tenants have is to hire a third party to fix the problem if the landlord has not done so after receiving notice of the maintenance or repair issue.  The tenant can then typically address this cost by reducing their next rent payment by the cost of the repairs.

Tenant may contact building code and health officials

A landlord’s least favorable outcome in situations involving the failure to address maintenance and/or repair issues is if the tenant raises the issue to the local building or health code enforcement officials.  This can often result in a larger scale investigation for the landlord which may end up being much more costly and cumbersome than if the landlord had simply addressed the maintenance and repair issues in the first place.

A tenant may claim constructive eviction

Another potential option for tenants in some jurisdictions is to simply move out of a rental unit that is uninhabitable and by doing so, thereby end the lease term.  This scenario sometimes ends up in a court action by a tenant which ultimately can result in the landlord having to pay money damages for the end of the lease term, emotional distress damages and other damages for physical discomfort for the uninhabitable conditions.

Negligence Liability

Apart from the other potential issues discussed above, a landlord may also be liable for negligence if a tenant or third party suffers injury as a result of the landlord’s failure to discharge its duty to maintain a habitable rental unit.  This potential liability may be much greater than any liability for repairs or maintenance issues, particularly if a tenant or other party suffers serious injury or death as a result of the landlord’s negligence in failing to maintain the premises. Thus, this is an important consideration for landlords which well exceeds the general obligation to provide a basic and habitable rental unit.

Conclusion

Landlords who engage in the business of renting property to tenants must be sure to keep their rental properties in reasonably habitable condition.  The failure to do so can lead to serious consequences for the landlord as discussed above.