Keep control over who repairs your property

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News®

Q: Unbeknownst to me, my tenant hired a handyman to come to the house and perform some repairs. The guy hurt himself and is now threatening to sue me. He says he has no insurance, and my tenant has none, either. I have property and liability insurance, but that's it. What is the risk that I'll end up paying the bill? --Jeff R.

A: I don't think there's a for-sure answer to your question. It depends on a few factors, which I'll explain.

First, who was responsible for the repair that the handyman undertook, and how serious was the problem that needed fixing? If it was a repair that seriously affected health and safety, was something that you knew about and were obliged to fix, you may have a problem. That's because a judge may see your tenant's response -- a self-help measure when you failed to act -- as foreseeable. When landlords deliberately or carelessly fail to live up to their duty to maintain fit housing, they must realize that tenants may step in and do the work themselves. If injury results, the landlord is sometimes held responsible.

For example, the tenant whose water heater is broken and unfixed, who burns herself with scalding water brought from the stovetop to the bathroom so that she can bathe in warm water, may have a claim against the landlord.

But in this case, it's the handyman who got hurt, not the tenant. This may change things, especially if the handyman's injuries resulted from his own carelessness. You may be responsible for a tenant's injuries, but not for a stranger's, someone with whom you have no contractual relationship.

While it may have been foreseeable that the tenant would take matters into his own hands, this does not mean that you are responsible for injuries suffered by third parties brought onto the property to accomplish repairs.

Other scenarios yield more or less the same conclusion. If you actually forbade outside workers from working on the property without your consent, your distance from any responsibility is heightened. And, if the repair was something that the tenant was obliged to do (in many states, landlords and tenants may agree that tenants will perform habitability repairs in single-family rentals), the onus moves over to the tenant. But even then, it's unlikely that the tenant would be responsible for the handyman's injuries, unless the situation encountered by the repairman was extremely dangerous, known to the tenant, and hidden from the handyman. In such a situation, the law considers it the duty of the tenant to warn the worker of the danger; failure to do so may result in liability.

The lessons here are many. To keep firm control on who performs repairs on your property, have lease clauses that require your consent before any workers arrive. Check to make sure those workers have their own insurance, either as individuals or as employees covered by their employer's workers' comp insurance. Insist that tenants carry renters' insurance, whose liability portion will cover the tenant should a worker get hurt and claim that the tenant's negligence was the cause. And always keep up on your preventative maintenance, so that problems like this are less likely to occur.

Q: We had to evict tenants who left us with an incredible mess -- tar in the appliances, upended appliances, flooding, and nasty dirt everywhere. The cost to repair and replace the damage will run in the thousands. I couldn't believe it when my insurance agent said we were not covered -- what the heck was I paying for all those years? To add insult to injury, the cops who came to carry out the eviction (the tenants were gone) wouldn't go after these folks (we told them where they live now), saying they couldn't take action because they didn't see the damage being done. What gives? --Dee V.

A: I wonder whether you asked your insurance agent the question you just asked me -- what, exactly, were you paying for when you sent checks to cover your "landlord's policy"? And I wonder if you got a straight answer. Because the truth is, if you had a standard policy only, damage due to vandalism was not, in fact, included. Nor was damage resulting from burglary.

But vandalism is a common add-on that wise landlords purchase, just as they buy "replacement cost" instead of "actual cash value" insurance, loss of rents insurance, building code upgrade insurance, and even coverage for satellite dish antennas and systems. Without these specific endorsements, you're not covered.

Of course, many owners don't know about these "not covered but available" types of insurance, though their absence is sometimes highlighted in the policy. It's up to the agent to educate his client on the exact coverage of the policy he's buying, what it will not cover, and whether there's an endorsement to fill the void. If your agent failed to educate you, he didn't do his job.

Now, on to the cops. You're wondering why, after you told them who lived there, explained the circumstances of their leaving, and told them where to find the ex-residents, the cops didn't put two and two together and go right after the culprits. But in order to arrest someone for a felony offense, when that offense has not been committed in the officers' presence, the officer must have probable cause -- a reasonable belief that these people committed a felony. The officers may have felt that although a motive may have existed for the damage, there was a possibility that others had actually done the deed (you supplied them with no eyewitness evidence, after all).

In addition, a warrant is almost always required when an arrest is made in someone's home, so sending these police to the tenants' new home presented them with that bar, too.

There is nothing to stop the police from working up the case, however, and presenting their conclusions to a judge while asking for a warrant. If a judge concludes that a crime was committed and there's probable cause (a good reason) to believe that your former tenants were responsible, you may get what you're after.

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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