Beware of tenant repair duties in lease

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 4, 2012

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News®

Q: The lease for our single-family house specifies that we will do "routine maintenance." The landlord claims that this includes fixing the roof and doing exterior painting. We had no idea that he saw it this way; we were thinking drain repair and so on. When we refused to re-roof the garage, he told us he'd sue us for the water damage that will result from a leaky roof. Can he? --Mark and Linda

A: Your question illustrates the dangers of handing over maintenance duties to tenants without a clear understanding of what those duties involve. Fortunately, the problem is relatively rare, because most states do not allow landlords to contract away their duty to maintain a fit and habitable rental. Of those that do, the statutes limit the practice to single-family homes, and typically require that the duties be spelled out in writing and that the arrangement be a fair bargain (in other words, the tenant must be paid for the labor or get a good deal on rent).

The landlord must treat the arrangement separately from his other duties as a landlord. This means, for example, that if the landlord is unhappy about the job the tenant is doing, he cannot retaliate by shutting off the water.

Even in states that allow landlords to delegate legally required upkeep, few do so. Most owners are not willing to entrust the integrity of their property to tenants who may not know much about property maintenance, and have less incentive to do things right than if they owned the property themselves.

Let's assume for now that your state allows the landlord to pass along the obligation to maintain the property, and you decline to re-roof the garage. If your landlord sues you for the resulting water damage, the burden will be on him to convince the judge or jury that you broke the maintenance agreement. And he could have a hard time doing so: The agreement, which the landlord wrote, is so vague as to be meaningless. A judge may well conclude that the landlord had a chance to write it correctly, failed to do so, and cannot now complain about the consequences.

Your landlord will be similarly out of luck if he tries to get his insurance company to cover the damage. Property damage policies cover damage that results from a sudden event, such as water that pours in after a tree has fallen on the roof. Deferred maintenance that causes water damage over time won't be covered.

Before it comes to that, get together with your landlord and revisit the delegation issue. Although the lease was signed some time ago, there's no reason why the two of you can't amend it now and fix it. Make sure that if you want to take on minor repairs only, their precise nature and extent is described thoroughly in the lease, and that you are fairly compensated for your efforts.

Q: I've always told my tenants that their rent check must be postmarked by the first of the month (rent is due the first). I've just hired a property manager, who says I should instead require receipt of the rent on the first. What do you think? --Peter A.

A: I'm with your property manager. "Due on the first of the month" means in your hand, or in your bank account if there's an electronic transfer of funds. If tenants are mailing a check, it's up to them to mail it in time to be received by the first.

Here's the practical problem with your approach: Not only will you receive the rent a number of days after it's due, but you also will have given your tenants an unintended grace period when it comes to failure to pay the rent.

Suppose, for example, that a tenant insists that she mailed the check on the first, and that date happens to have fallen on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Because Monday is a federal holiday, the earliest the check will arrive is the following Tuesday, a full three days after the first. In fact, if she missed the last pick-up on Saturday, it will not have been processed until Tuesday ... and you can't expect to get it until Wednesday or even Thursday. So you wait until Thursday or even Friday, and don't give her a three-day notice to pay or quit until Friday or Saturday. She's managed to not pay rent for an entire week, and has another three days to come up with the rent -- 10 days after it was due.

But suppose she moves out instead? You have to take those 10 days' worth of rent from her security deposit. That leaves the balance to cover damage beyond ordinary wear and tear. If the cost to repair damage exceeds the balance of the deposit, you'll have to either sue for the remainder or swallow the loss.

Had you insisted on actually receiving rent on the first, you could have served your notice on the second, and the tenant would have had to pay by the end of the day on the fourth. If she moved out instead, you'd take only four days' worth of rent from the deposit, leaving more to cover damage.

Of course, the delay caused by your approach will delay any eviction proceedings too, which you'll need to begin if the tenant neither pays nor moves out. It's far better to file an eviction lawsuit early on, when the unpaid rent is lower, because that rent will also come out of the security deposit, leaving less to cover damage.

I hope all of this convinces you to write your future leases to require that you receive the rent by the first of the month. Putting the risk of mail delays on the tenant is the only sensible way to go.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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