New roof vs. patching leaks

Proper action can can save hassle, cost less in the long run

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 18, 2010

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Proper action can can save hassle, cost less in the long run

Robert Griswold
Inman News

Q: I am a landlord and have some questions about my responsibilities for maintenance on a rental home that I partially own. My father passed away a few years ago and left the home to my mother and me. She is no longer able to live on her own so we are renting the property to generate some income. The home is about 70 years old and is a classic with cathedral open-beam ceilings.

The roof is only 20 years old but unfortunately there have been four serious roof leaks. Each time I have had the roof leaks patched, but the roofing companies are unable or unwilling to give me any warranty on their work because of the age of the home and the limited patching that I am having done.

The tenant is insisting that I offer him a rent reduction based on the roof leaks. I have offered to let him break his lease and pay for his moving expenses. But he doesn't want to leave the home because, aside from the leaking roof, he totally adores the property and it meets his needs.

A complete roof replacement will be very expensive, and I am frustrated with the prospect of additional repairs since they seem to be ineffective. I have consulted an attorney, but he was no help. What do you suggest?

A: I suggest you immediately obtain bids from at least three qualified contractors. While the cost of completely replacing the roof may be high, you certainly cannot afford to let the tenant break the lease and lose the rental income.

Not only will you lose any net income that may help you with other expenses of your mother, you will still have all of the fixed expenses of owning the rental property. Even if the home is owned free and clear of a mortgage, you will have property taxes and insurance and possibly other ongoing expenses.

The continuation of a Band-Aid approach of patching one section of the roof after another has been clearly demonstrated to not be a viable solution. At the rate you are going, you will end up re-roofing the rental home in a patchwork quilt fashion, which I can assure you will ultimately be much more expensive than doing the entire job at once. Plus, with a new roof, you will be able to insist on a warranty and should not have any roof expenses for many years.

The cost of continued roof patching, giving your tenant's rent credits when the roof leaks, paying his moving expenses and/or having the rental unit vacant for even a month or two is likely to be better spent on the proper course of action, which is simply replacing the roof.

You need to hurry to beat the rainy season in your area, but you may also be pleasantly surprised that business is slower than usual for many roofing contractors these days. In many areas of the country, now is not a bad time to make your own contribution to "stimulating the economy," as your dollar goes further today than I have seen in many years.

If the logic of my answer does not persuade you, I would encourage you to consider the serious negative consequences of failing to take decisive and affirmative steps to remedy the roof leaks. A roof that is having persistent and serious leaks is clearly a breach of the tenant's reasonable expectation of quiet enjoyment and habitability of the rental unit, which is contained in the language of virtually every lease or rental agreement.

Your attorney may have pointed this out, and that is why you feel that you need a second opinion. But he or she may have also informed you that you cannot simply cancel the lease, as there is a solution to the water intrusion that does not require the tenant to vacate. This is certainly not a situation where the property has been destroyed or would trigger any destruction clause that may make the premises uninhabitable and the lease voidable.

It could be argued by an attorney for the tenant that your inactions "forced the tenant to leave the property," which would be a form of retaliatory eviction for his legitimate complaints. You don't want to go there.

While any rental property may suffer from the failure of the roof system or other problems as the property ages, the fact is that you have had four serious roof leaks. The tenant could easily show that you have yet to successfully address the problem in a meaningful way, which would be excellent evidence against you as the landlord if the tenant chose to contact local building officials or stop paying rent.

You would then have legal expenses as well as potentially a loss of rent -- or you may even be required to pay damages to the tenant, including his legal fees and costs.

And after all of this, you still need to pay for a new roof sometime soon. I suggest you stay off that slippery slope!

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

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