Real Estate Series Part II: What is a Landlord responsible for?

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Oh, it's great to be a landlord. You collect rent from tenants who adore you, please your financial planner, form lasting friendships and answer tenant phone calls between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. That is, unless a unit's hot water heater breaks in the middle of January. Or the sewer system explodes over the weekend and you're in Maui. Or a tenant decides to start an indoor drum circle.


Running a duplex or even an apartment complex however does not need to be daunting. They key is to understand your legal responsibilities as a landlord when you get started. In doing so, you can arm yourself with information and better avoid any potential problems.

So what do you need to know?

Basically, the landlord of a rental unit is responsible for providing a "habitable" unit for a tenant. The term "habitable" means that the rental unit must be fit to live in, be free from hazards or defects, and be compliant with all state and local building and health codes.

Okay. So, what exactly qualifies as uninhabitable? The following living conditions would qualify as uninhabitable: no working plumbing, gas, or electric, broken windows or doors, or unclean buildings and unkempt grounds that are not sanitary and safe.

The key thing to remember is that if a landlord does not keep habitable living conditions, that landlord could be found negligent in a court of law if sued by a tenant. In fact, a court may allocate damages to a tenant by reducing the rent the tenant pays to a landlord.

There are some basic steps you can follow to keep your property habitable. The basic landlord responsibilities include:

  • Complying with all state and local health and building codes
  • Maintaining structural components and a reasonably weather-protected unit
  • Providing the necessary heat, electric, and hot and cold water facilities
  • Making any requested repairs promptly
  • Ensuring that living conditions are peaceful and quiet, as well as hazard-free
  • Maintaining a "pest-free" environment
  • Inspecting the property each time it is leased to determine whether or not it meets safety and adequate living standards
  • Giving notice before entering a rental unit, except in cases of emergency Abiding by all stipulations in a lease agreement
  • Allowing 15 days written notice of any changes to a month-to-month agreement
  • Adhering to the legal eviction process if evicting a tenant

Warranty of Habitability

Under the warranty of habitability, a landlord has a duty to provide the amenities that are essential to maintaining the tenant's living requirements. In other words, you as a landlord give your word that you will keep the unit in good living condition. Thus, if a defect in a building affects a tenant, a landlord may be liable for damages suffered by the tenant.

On the other hand, the warranty of habitability does not require a landlord to make sure the rented property is aesthetically pleasing to the tenant. The warranty of habitability is also not violated if a building has a minor housing code violation that does not affect the habitability of the unit.

Repairs

Although landlords are primarily responsible for ensuring the habitability of the rental unit, both landlords and tenants are responsible for certain repairs. For instance, the landlord must perform any maintenance work that is necessary for keeping the rental unit livable for the tenant. The landlord is also legally responsible for repairing any defects, and will be liable for any injuries resulting from a defect that the landlord failed to repair or repaired ineffectively. However, a landlord is not responsible for repairing damages that were caused by the tenant or the tenant's family, guests or pets.

Due Diligence and Due Care

A landlord is required to inspect and resolve all defects and hazards that may exist within a rental unit prior to a tenant's move-in date. If defects or hazards are found on a property and can be determined as a potential hazard, the landlord can be held accountable for any injuries or illnesses inflicted upon the tenants.

In other words, the landlord must exercise "due diligence." He or she has the responsibility to investigate and identify any harmful issues. A landlord must also exercise "due care." He or she is required to do something about any defects, issues or other findings that arose during the due diligence. The landlord can be found liable for any dangers on rented property, or for violating safety statues or regulations. Landlords are not responsible for any dangers that the landlord has no control over preventing.

Security Deposit

A landlord is obligated to return the entire security deposit to the tenant at the end of the tenancy, providing the tenant did not damage the apartment beyond normal wear and tear. If the landlord keeps any portion of the security deposit to repair a tenant's damage to the apartment, the landlord must provide an itemized list to the tenant of the damage and the actual cost of any repairs.

Leasing Space

Landlords have similar responsibilities when leasing out space for commercial purposes. A landlord is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the leased premises, as well as heat, water and any other services agreed upon in the lease. A landlord cannot force a tenant to renew a lease agreement more than 90 days before the existing agreement terminates, and the landlord must provide the tenant with at least 30 days written notice of the landlord's intention not to renew the rental agreement.

Laws May Differ in Your State

Because landlord-tenant disputes are primarily governed by state law, it is important to understand your rights in your particular state. If confronted with a landlord-tenant dispute, consult an attorney as to your rights under your state's laws.