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What Are Landlords Responsible For?

What happens when the water heater in your rental property or one of your units leaks? And who is responsible for repairs and damage? As a landlord, there are some specific responsibilities and issues you need to handle; there are some repairs that are firmly the responsibility of the tenant and a few things that fall into the gray area in between. What are you responsible for, and what problems warrant a little more investigation before you hand over the cash? Learning more about the most common landlord responsibilities can ensure you are protected legally and that you are properly caring for your property and tenants, too.

Laws and Leases

Your responsibilities as a landlord are defined in several ways. Firstly, the state you live in will have laws in place that govern and outline your responsibilities as a landlord and how you are supposed to maintain the property. Any issues that arise have to be handled in a way that complies with state law. If the roof of the property is damaged due to bad weather or another natural hazard, or is simply old and in need of repair, and your state law says that landlords are responsible for damage to the structure, then you will need to spend some money to get that roof in shape. As a landlord, you need to comply with state law when it comes to repairs and responsibility.

Your lease agreement is the other factor that will determine what your responsibilities are. Your lease needs to be compliant with state laws and should outline your responsibilities when it comes to the repair and update of the home. If you do end up having a dispute with a tenant, this valuable legal document will be referred to in court and used to determine the right outcome for your situation.

Landlord's General Responsibilities

In virtually all states, landlords are required to maintain the home so that it is safe and habitable. Issues that impact the structure or safety of the home are almost always the landlord's responsibilities, as are issues that affect the livability of the structure. If your tenant fails to pay the water bill and the water is turned off, then they are responsible for their lack of water. If, however, the water heater leaks or the pump that brings water from the well to the home is damaged by bad weather or simply breaks down, the burden of ensuring that the home is habitable with water falls to you as the landlord.

Learning more about what you are required to cover as a landlord ensures you comply with the law and that you maintain the best possible relationship with your tenants. While the below points outline potential scenarios that you could encounter, you should also check the laws of your state and have a lease in place to protect your time, your investment, and your money when you become a landlord.

A Habitable Home

In every state, if you rent out a residential property it must be in compliance with all local safety, health, and building codes. If the property is not acceptable, you could end up in court. What is considered a habitable home? Your property should have:

  • working plumbing and sewer/septic tanks;
  • gas or electric lines and wiring that is up to code and safe;
  • no broken windows or glass;
  • exterior doors that close and lock for tenant security;
  • a yard free of hazards and eyesores (e.g. temporary structures, junk cars, and more could be seen as hazardous and should be removed prior to renting);
  • a roof that prevents water from seeping in and damaging the home and contents;
  • a pest-free environment;
  • prompt attention to needed repairs;
  • replacement of known, identified hazards; and
  • adherence to any legal protections in place regarding eviction.

Regular Maintenance

Since you are required to keep the property in habitable shape, one of the responsibilities you will face is paying prompt attention to needed repairs and maintenance. This allows you to respond quickly and keeps your tenants happy, and it also prevents small problems from turning into big ones. Address a leaky sink right away and you are just dealing with a few drips; delay and you will not only have an irate tenant, but you could end up having to cope with floor repair and mold remediation too.

Who Broke It?

Some things simply have to be addressed to prevent further damage to your property. If something happens to the roof, heavy rains bring unexpected flooding, or the garage door opener just ceases to operate, then you should attend to these problems as quickly as possible to maintain a healthy living space for your tenants.

If the living room rug is damaged because your tenant decided to park his motorcycle indoors, the walls have holes because your tenant has a temper, or his pet has soiled the carpet, then these are generally the tenant's responsibility and the reason you collect a security deposit and hold it in escrow.

By paying attention to both repair requests and regular maintenance issues, you can ensure you are compliant with local law, your lease agreement, and your responsibilities as a landlord.

Who Is Responsible?

Some instances are easy to figure out by simply by reading the lease and local laws and learning why the damage happened. Others are not so simple to figure out. A few of the less common areas of responsibility are outlined below:

  • Flood damage – A flood that occurs because of nature is seen as an act of God, and you as the landlord are generally responsible. Recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida made headlines as some of the homes damaged by floods were rentals. Damage to the home that made it uninhabitable was the responsibility of the landlord after the flood, while damages to a tenant’s belongings were the responsibility of the tenant. If the property is livable, the tenant may continue to live there but must pay rent. Both tenant and landlord could be eligible for FEMA assistance.
  • Dogs and damage – If you allow dogs on your property, the tenant is responsible for damage done to your home, from soiled rugs to chewed doors and fixtures. If, however, the dog bites someone, the law is less clear. If you have no connection with the dog (beyond knowing it is there) and it bites someone, then you will generally not be held responsible. However, if you know the dog is dangerous (or if it has bitten someone already) and you do not remove it from your property, you could be held liable for injuries. Requiring a tenant who has a pet to have renter’s insurance can offset any costs incurred after a dog bite, and knowing what pets are in your unit can also help you protect yourself from legal entanglements due to a bite.
  • Tenants and criminal activity – Part of your undisputed responsibility as a landlord is to maintain a safe and secure home to protect your tenants from crime. But what happens if your tenants are the criminals? In some cases, landlords may be held responsible for the criminal activity of tenants, particularly where drugs are involved. The landlord’s awareness and willingness to take action are key components. If you see drug activity, you should reach out to law enforcement and act to legally evict those tenants. Fail to act and you could end up in legal trouble yourself.
  • HOA issues – If you rent out a home in a managed community, then there is one more level of responsibility. In addition to adhering to local laws and your lease agreement, you also need to comply with any Homeowners' Association (HOA) rules in place. So, if your tenant fails to cut the grass, leaves a junk car out front, or has a yard littered with trash, it could end up costing you HOA penalty fees, even if you are not the ones making the mess. You can attempt to pass these fees on to your tenant but will likely have to pay them yourself; many HOAs have the ability to assess liens on property because of unpaid fees.
  • Noise – If you have a multi-family dwelling, you may find yourself responsible for noise control. Since the home is supposed to be habitable and comfortable, the party animals in Unit A could be making Unit B uninhabitable for your residents. You will need to step in and stop the noise or face additional issues, even though you are not the one playing the drums or shouting at a spouse at 2 a.m.

What Happens If Landlords Do Not Make Required Repairs?

If you do not make the repairs that you are required to, you could end up facing some additional costs or even a trip to the local courthouse. Since both state law and your lease outline your responsibilities, when you fail to keep the home in good repair or address repairs properly, you could face a loss of rental income and other monetary damages.

In some states, a tenant can legally withhold rent until a problem is addressed (some areas require the tenant to pay the usual rent into an escrow account instead of withholding it entirely). The tenant could make deductions from their rent, offsetting it by a chosen or arbitrary amount until things are fixed, or they could hire a third party to make the repairs and then deduct any fees from upcoming rent.

If the issue is so bad that the home no longer complies with local health laws or children are in the home, you could also find yourself facing legal sanctions and forced to clean things up in a hurry. If your tenant reports your property to local authorities and the complaint is found to be valid, you could face fines and fees in addition to the initial repair costs you were hoping to avoid.

A tenant that feels unheard or that is simply tired of waiting also has another option: terminating the lease due to lack of compliance on your part. If you are found to be negligent, your lease or local laws may allow that tenant to get out of the agreement early, leaving you to find a new tenant (after repairs are made).

Since failing to address repairs and responsibilities has both legal and financial consequences, making maintenance a top priority will prevent things from falling into a downward spiral. Landlords who take good care of a property, comply with the lease and local laws, and cooperate with tenants are less likely to see high turnover rates (and associated costs) and experience less stress.

A property that needs repair is a mildly stressful situation for a landlord, as it poses an interruption to your regular routine and requires you to lay out cash you may not have budgeted for. On the other hand, a tenant who has a repair request and who has been ignored can become angry and take some form of action, and that is almost always a more stressful and punitive situation than the initial repair would be. Making repairs a priority keeps everyone happy and protects your relationships and reputation, too.