Is Your Tenant Responsible for this?

by Karina Gafford

Responsibility for maintenance remains the biggest area for contention between military landlords and tenants alike, and for good reason. Given the nature of property management, so many unexpected things can go wrong with a property that it simply is not feasible or practical to list out every item for the purpose of a lease. As a result, leases are generally non-specific about what maintenance items that a landlord will cover, and what maintenance items remain the responsibility of the tenant. While many leases do include a clause that requires tenants to cover the cost of minor repairs, for example, those costing less than $75, not every maintenance item that costs less than $75 is the legal responsibility of the tenant. The $75 charge tends to simply exist to help mitigate superfluous maintenance calls; however, as we have covered in many blogs, a clause on a lease does not supersede either local or state housing codes.

If you have received ludicrous phone calls (the one’s that usually occur in the middle of the night) for maintenance issues, I feel your pain. Do not fret, though, as there are solutions! 

First, let me make you feel a little better about some of the maintenance issues that you may have had to handle. As new landlords in our early 20s, my husband and I paid for some pretty foolish maintenance repairs. Perhaps the most absurd situation was this: A tenant (let’s call him Dave, and let’s also keep in mind that Dave happens to be a really nice and well-educated guy) called to complain about seeing a couple of cockroaches in the kitchen. I requested that Dave set bait traps and contact me in a week. One week later, Dave called to say that he had not set bait traps, but that there were now more cockroaches in the kitchen. Again (and slightly frustrated this time), I requested that Dave set bait traps and contact me in a week to update me on their progress. I told him to send me the receipt for reimbursement for the bait traps in case cost was an issue; I just wanted the phone calls about cockroaches to stop! 

Like clockwork, one week later, Dave called again only to inform me that he had still not set bait traps, but now there were so many cockroaches that he had captured two of them in the microwave, which he had now set out on the back patio (the uncovered patio, that is) in the hopes that they would die from the exposure. Alarmed, I called our termite company to follow-up immediately with the tenant to perform pest control services on the property. The technician reported that not only did the cockroach infestation (!) result from a hoarder-like situation, but also the microwave needed replacing (rain and electronics are not a good mix, just in case you were curious). Unaware that tenants are responsible for maintenance that immediately results from their negligence of keeping sanitary living conditions, I paid for the pest control, follow-up pest control, and a new microwave. All of these should have been billed to the tenant. Unfortunately, this was one just silly example of many in a series of ridiculous maintenance calls that cost us an exorbitant amount of money over a period of a couple of years.

To remedy this issue, we took a few very important steps: 1) We interviewed property managers to see who would be the best fit for handling the inane middle-of-the-night maintenance issues, 2) we hired the best fit, 3) we requested more intensive screening of tenants than we had previously pursued, to include calling previous landlords 3) we then set a maintenance limit of $250 per month where, for any maintenance items less than this limit, we would not be bothered with phone calls. If the maintenance issue cost would exceed this amount, then our property manager would contact us for prior approval. Instantly, our excessive maintenance calls disappeared! We now receive approximately three or four calls per year total, and that is for multiple properties.

Our solution would not work for everyone, particularly for the brave at heart who choose to manage their own properties. It also does not address the issue of responsibility for maintenance, as we have left the minor repairs solely up to the discretion of our property manager. For our part, this solution has significantly reduced our annual maintenance bill for each property; however, we do now pay 8-percent of received rents to a property manager each year. Despite the 8-percent fee, we have found that our annual maintenance bill still remains lower than the previous amounts we were paying.

For the more patient and tolerant of middle-of-the-night maintenance calls, however, we’ll take a look at a quick guide to determining responsibility for maintenance issues.

First of all, any landlord must know that all maintenance issues are subject to policies set forth by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Their basic guidelines for the maintenance responsibilities of landlords are as follows: 

"[Landlords must] make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition; keep all common areas of the premises in a clean and safe condition; maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord."

As such, each individual state also has its own set of landlord responsibilities, though the language varies little from HUD’s on a state to state basis. The State of Indiana, for instance, includes an additional clause that requires "adequate weatherproofing;" the State of California requires that trash receptacles are in good repair; and the State of Florida includes a clause stating that the home must be "free of pests." The home of the cockroach infestation was in Florida; however, the Florida code also requires that negligence on the part of a tenant that causes a maintenance issue is the responsibility of the tenant. These maintenance codes exist even if no written lease exists.

It is important to make yourself aware of each state’s code, as the codes per state more specifically delineate the responsibilities of the landlord for maintenance. 

Codes for states will clearly define items such as:

1.     How much natural light per room meets the minimum requirement. You cannot have a basement with no windows and classify it as a bedroom, for example.

2.     Where safety exits must exist. These generally state that no obstructions must exist in the hallways or in the vicinity of exit doors. These areas also must be kept free of combustible materials.

3.     Whether the landlord is required to provide fire extinguishers in the kitchen. 

To make sure that your rental property is up to standards and not in violation of any housing codes, do the following:

1.     Go to the state information section of the HUD housing page.

2.     Select the state in which your rental property is located.

3.     Select "Get Rental Help" under "I Want To…"

4.     Select "Tenant Rights, Laws, and Protections."

5.     Depending on the state, you will either find the Landlord Tenant Act for that state or a Landlord Tenant Handbook.

6.     Read the act or handbook, as provided, and proceed accordingly! 

If you have any questions about any of the provisions, please make sure to send them our way. We would be happy to help provide any further information that we can!

To sum up, you the landlord must provide a home that is habitable (fit for a human to live in). If the tenant has severely violated the terms of the lease agreement and refuses to accept responsibility, then it is appropriate to proceed with the eviction processIf, however, the tenant has violated the terms of the agreement to the point where the home is not habitable, for instance, a hoarder is living in a pest-infested home that is a direct result of his junk hoarding, then you the landlord are not responsible for returning the home to a habitable situation for the duration of that tenant’s lease. As long as you are okay with the tenant remaining in the home—and provided that you are taking into consideration the possibility of a further deterioration of the condition of the property—then the state is on your side. 

On a final though, if you are ever in any doubt as to whether a tenant should accept responsibility for a particular maintenance issue, try to consider whether you would hold yourself responsible in the same situation.