Prioritize rental repair requests

How to handle landlord who ignores roof leak, broken heater

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted May. 5, 2011

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How to handle landlord who ignores roof leak, broken heater

Robert Griswold
Inman News™

Q: What are the landlord's responsibilities as far as repairs? I have had a broken dishwasher, and my heater has not worked for the last month. I contacted my landlord and complained about these problems more than a month ago. Then three days ago I came home from work and discovered I have a leaking ceiling.

I have tried to catch the water in a small plastic trash can, but I can't stay home from work to empty the container so quite a bit of water got into the carpet and padding. Based on the smell, I seem to have mildew because it was not taken care of properly. I really like my landlord and I don't want to be a whiny tenant, but how long am I expected to wait for my landlord to make repairs?

A: Of course, in an ideal world, the landlord would always respond immediately, but that isn't always realistic. So the answer to your question is that your patience and expectations should be flexible depending on the exact nature of the problem.

Let's look individually at each of the three problems you currently have with your unit.

While all are legitimate concerns that your landlord should handle, clearly the roof leak must be addressed immediately. The landlord's failure to respond in a timely manner has led to the wet carpet and pad, and the problem is only getting worse the longer the water intrusion continues.

I do understand that roof leaks often cannot be resolved until it stops raining, but that doesn't mean the landlord can simply ignore the problem. The landlord may be able to make temporary repairs or cover the area so that further water intrusion or potential damage is minimized.

To this point, you have contacted your landlord on the phone only, and I understand that there may be some circumstances where you are only able to call your landlord. There is nothing wrong with an initial phone call, especially if it gets the results you are seeking.

However, in this case of the roof leak, you absolutely should document every communication in writing, as prolonged water intrusion could develop into a serious issue. I encourage you to contact your landlord and send a written communication that gives the timeline of what happened with the roof leak and your attempts to contact him.

This could be a letter or, better yet, you should send your landlord an email and require that you get a confirmation back that it was received. This could prove helpful in the future if your landlord ever denies knowledge of the roof leak or there is a dispute about when you brought this leak to his attention.

The problem with water intrusion into a dwelling from roof leaks or windows -- as well as leaks within the unit from plumbing lines or air conditioning units -- is that there is the potential that if left unattended mildew or mold has the potential to develop within 24-48 hours. In some cases, you may have up to 72 hours, but the sooner the water is extracted or the wet materials are properly dried, the better.

There is no reason or excuse for your landlord to fail to address this emergency situation with the water leak, and you should advise your landlord, preferably in writing (and keep copies for your records) that you will take immediate steps to contact local authorities about possible violations if he fails to respond promptly.

In most jurisdictions a rental unit without heat is a serious habitability violation -- and it could potentially be dangerous depending on the temperature.

If you learn that the heater isn't working in the warmer months of the year and there is no need to use it, you may decide to give the landlord more time to address the repair, if mutually agreed, to allow the landlord to personally do the work, for example.

However, the reality is that nonworking heaters are most often discovered in conjunction with the first cold snap -- and that is when you really need them!

In these very common situations of cold weather and an inoperative heater, the landlord must take immediate action. Of course, I have heard of situations where it is difficult for landlords to get a qualified repair person in a timely manner. The two best examples are: trying to find help to address roof leaks during the first major rain storm of the season and a competent repair person for the heater the first day that the thermometer plummets.

In the case of your inoperative heater, please do make sure that your complaint is in writing. In older rental homes or rental communities, the heater may not be easy to fix, as parts may need to be ordered or the heater may even be obsolete and require a replacement unit. If this happens in the summer then the timing is not likely to be a problem and you can work with your landlord.

However, if the weather conditions are currently or will soon dictate the need for space heating, the landlord should offer you a portable space heater until the permanent solution can be found.

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