Beware of unfair rent deduction

Leaky toilet snowballs into $600 water bill

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 24, 2011

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Leaky toilet snowballs into $600 water bill

Robert Griswold
Inman News™

Q: My husband and I own a duplex. Our situation is that we have a tenant who had a leaky toilet, and the water bill was in excess of $600 for two months. She deducted half of the amount from her rent and claims that it is our responsibility to pay half the bill.

First of all, she waited about a month before she called my husband to say the toilet was leaking. Second, it leaked so much that we also had to replace the ceramic tiles on the floor. Third, can she just deduct amounts from her rent without discussing it with us?

Also, she is by no means a good tenant. She is always late with the rent; we have settled for less back rent than she owed; and we will not renew her contract when it is up. So, is it our responsibility to pay for the water bill because of the toilet?

A: You are responsible for the water bill only if you were aware of the problem with the toilet and did not make the necessary repairs in a timely manner. It sounds like your tenant pays her own water bill directly. This is generally a good idea and one I recommend -- unless your rental property has a yard with landscaping, and then you run the risk that the tenant will not sufficiently water the grounds and you would lose your landscaping.

A $600 water bill is very unusual and likely means that the toilet must have literally been running nonstop for over a month. In that case, the tenant is the only one who can identify the problem and take the steps herself to either fix the toilet or turn off the water supply valve and contact you to have someone make the necessary repairs. It would seem that your tenant didn't do anything but let the toilet run, and now wants you to participate in paying for this astronomical water bill.

I would suggest you immediately send your tenant a letter indicating that she owes the $300 she improperly deducted from her rent and give her no more than five work days to pay the amount in full (or whatever the legal time limit is in your area for a legal demand for unpaid rent).

If she does not pay, then you should take steps to commence an eviction action. It certainly is obvious that your tenant is not taking good and conscientious care of your property and it sounds like you have other serious concerns, so outplacement may be your best option.

Q: A few years ago we purchased a condominium unit at an auction. The unit included a "guest" parking space in front of it, which made it more valuable because the parking at this community is very limited. This parking space pushed the bidding higher and we paid about $2,000 above what the other two-bedroom units sold for at the time.

The board of directors recently decided at a board meeting -- without notice or a vote of the homeowners that would be negatively affected -- that it would reassign parking. In our case, it assigned our guest spot to another homeowner and gave us a replacement guest spot way down the street. Is this allowed?

A: You will need to review your purchase documents, including the legal description of the unit you purchased, to determine if you were granted title to a specific parking space or were simply given the right to use one unspecified space among all the parking spaces located throughout your community.

Often, the legal description of some condo units will include deeded parking spaces that are specifically designated in the condominium plan or governing documents and cannot be reassigned by the actions of the board of directors.

While auctions are not an uncommon way to sell real estate in many parts of the country, I am concerned that the lack of information available to purchasers can easily lead to a situation like yours where you may not be entitled to what you thought you were purchasing.

I would hope that the association board of directors had its legal counsel review the governing documents in advance before making this decision to reassign parking spaces. Even if it did, a proper course of action would have been to hold a general meeting for all members (such as the annual meeting) and fully vet the pros and cons of this proposed parking reassignment.

Having managed and served as a board member on associations for more than 30 years, I can tell you that parking is a hot topic that will certainly get homeowners interested in attending otherwise uneventful board meetings.

Of course, I understand that reading the governing documents can be difficult, and most are not easily understood by someone who does not have legal training or extensive experience in interpreting them. So you should consider contacting an attorney or expert in your area who specializes in homeowners associations.

If the determination is made that you indeed do have the right to the parking space in front of your unit, you will need to send a written notice to your board of directors, along with your supporting documentation. Hopefully, the board will immediately correct any errors for you and other affected homeowners.

If not, it may be necessary to seek legal action. A more cost-effective (and efficient) method than pursuing a lawsuit against an HOA would be to get actively involved yourself as a board member and encourage others to get involved as well.

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