The problem with a 'Mr. Fix-it' landlord

Is it proper to increase rent for 'professional' repairs?

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 2, 2011

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Is it proper to increase rent for 'professional' repairs?

Robert Griswold
Inman News™

Q: I routinely read your column and know that you always advise tenants to put their concerns about the rental unit in writing. I recently moved and found a great deal on a fantastic but older rental home.

My landlord bragged about all of the upgrades and improvements that had been made to the home and said that he does all of his own work as a hobby. The home was basically in good condition, and I didn't notice any issues when I did my original walk-through on the day that I moved in.

However, after living in the home I found that there were several issues that apparently had been missed.

I sent my landlord a letter detailing the items, but now it has been more than two months and none of the items have been addressed -- and the landlord hasn't even come by.

So I called him last night and he assured me that he would get to it, but has indicated that he is very busy at work and has had to work evenings and weekends. I tell him I can't wait forever, but he refuses to hire a professional; he says it will cost him too much money and he implies that he will then have to raise my rent. Is that the proper way for my landlord to respond to my concerns?

A: No. Your landlord may find personal satisfaction in doing all of the work needed to make a rental property rent-ready, and when it is vacant the only inconvenience (and lost revenue) is his own. But even a landlord who has a hobby of repairing and upgrading rental homes must have a strategy for addressing maintenance issues that arise during a tenancy in a prompt and timely manner.

The reality is that in every rental unit there will be maintenance issues that will occur. This happens in rental units new and old alike. Of course, the likelihood that repairs will be needed does increase as the home and its building systems and components get older. So the question isn't whether something broke or needs to be fixed or replaced, but how the landlord responds or addresses the problems.

It sounds like you have a landlord who is mechanically inclined and likes to do as much of the handiwork or light repairs on his own. There is nothing wrong with that conceptually, but it can't be used as an excuse by the landlord to delay his response unreasonably.

I will further caution that there are many repairs that the landlord should not attempt to make on his own unless he has the necessary training, qualifications, and/or experience. For example, many do-it-yourself (DIY) landlords will do light electrical work and replace a defective wall plug outlet on their own. But if your complaint involves flickering lights or consistently thrown circuit breakers, then a competent electrician should be brought in.

It also concerns me for your landlord to imply that your unwillingness to wait indefinitely will lead to higher costs. Your landlord is taking the position that if these repairs are done by a professional then these costs will be passed on to you. On the surface that would seem to make sense, and certainly higher operating costs are often passed through in one way or another to the tenant.

But what troubles me is that your landlord should have set the rent for this older but renovated rental home at market level so that he is able to pay for proper and timely repairs. I have seen situations where the landlord is charging below-market rent and thinks he is doing the tenant a big favor and then gets very upset when the tenant contacts him with maintenance issues.

Even worse is if the tenant becomes afraid to point out problems when they are minor for fear of a rent increase or even an eviction. Most small repairs are relatively inexpensive, but can quickly become big problems when ignored.

Again, it is fine for a DIY landlord to do those repairs that he is qualified to perform as long as he can make them in a timely manner. But to threaten you with a rent increase (even if it is only implied) is wrong and could violate your local tenant-landlord laws or local ordinances.

Send your landlord the list again and let him know that you want a firm commitment as to when the landlord will be available and will handle these repairs. You might give a reasonable deadline. You have been very patient so if the landlord continues to give you the runaround, you should contact your local code enforcement or building inspection department and file a complaint.

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."

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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