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How To Meet the Warranty of Habitability as a Landlord

The implied warranty of habitability is a public policy law. It's a rule across the country requiring landlords to provide a livable property to their tenants. Landlords should try to make repairs in a timely manner. But catering to excessive or unwarranted tenant demands can distract from more important duties. When deciding what repairs to make first, landlords should prioritize repairs affecting the habitability of the rental unit.

Repairs That Affect the Warranty of Habitability

Every time a landlord rents out a rental unit, they're implicitly promising that it is fit for human habitation. That is, they have made a warranty of habitability. If you're not prioritizing certain repairs, your actions or omissions as a landlord may constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability in a rental property.

Exactly what is included in the warranty of habitability can vary from state to state. For example, some states make it the landlord's duty to ensure the rental units are safe. Those landlords must repair exterior locks, lights, and other basic safety devices as soon as possible.

Other examples of repairs affecting the warranty of habitability include:

  • Structural repairs, such as severe damage to the walls, ceiling, or floor
  • Repairs to the electrical system, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and building code violations
  • Repairs to the plumbing system, hot water system, and water damage
  • Extermination of pest infestations not caused by the tenant, such as vermin rodent infestations or bedbugs
  • Removal of lead paint or other hazardous substances
  • Installation of working deadbolt locks and window guards

Repairs affecting habitability should be made immediately. If they're unreasonably delayed, the tenant may have a right to withhold a month's rent or more. It may be a tenant's right to make the repair themselves and deduct it from their rent. They may also take advantage of rent abatement.

Rent abatement allows tenants to withhold rent proportionate to the area of the dwelling unit that is uninhabitable. If a landlord doesn't make a necessary repair to their real property within a reasonable time, the tenant may be able to continue withholding rent money. If the problem is so bad that the tenant must move out, they may not even be liable for nonpayment of rent.

Repairs That Can Be Made Later

If a repair doesn't affect the warranty of habitability, renters may not withhold rent if the landlord fails to remedy the situation. That doesn't mean a landlord should just ignore those repairs. There are a host of good reasons to make any kind of repair as quickly as possible:

  • Safety: A loose floor tile or a broken step may not make the apartment uninhabitable, but it does present a safety hazard. If a tenant notifies you that the hazard exists and someone gets hurt, you may need to pay damages to the injured person.
  • Maintaining a relationship with the tenant: Finding a new tenant for a rental unit is a time-consuming and expensive process for many landlords. If you ignore a tenant's requests for simple repairs, they may decide to find a more accommodating landlord.
  • Maintaining your reputation: If you promptly respond to your tenants' requests, you earn a reputation as a good, responsive landlord. This will make it easier to find better tenants the next time you need to rent your property.

Repairs That a Landlord May Not Need To Make At All

Certain damage to a property might not require repairs at all. For instance, ordinary wear and tear that doesn't affect the habitability or livability of the property might not need to be repaired. Ugly common areas might not need to be spruced up if they're not affecting safe occupancy. A landlord might want to wait until the term of the residential lease agreement is over and another tenant is ready to move in before making the property shiny and new again. Moreover, if a tenant is at fault for creating a condition that makes the property uninhabitable, more analysis is necessary before it can be determined whether the landlord has a responsibility to make immediate repairs.

Suppose, for instance, that a tenant is very upset and deliberately vandalizes the property by smashing down some walls with a hammer. It's not exactly the landlord's fault if the ceiling comes down before the landlord even has a chance to discover the problem. But since this could be a safety issue, the landlord may have a duty to repair the premises after finding out.

Assuming that the tenant gives reasonable written notice to the landlord about the problem, the landlord might not be financially responsible even if the repair has to be made. In these situations, the landlord may be justified in initiating an eviction or taking money from the tenant to make the repairs.

In other situations, it might be easier to determine that a repair isn't necessary at all. If damage to the wall is purely cosmetic, then there isn't a safety or habitability issue that could require repair. If the rental agreement complies with the law and explicitly removes the landlord's responsibility to fix something, then that item might not be a priority. Examples include air conditioning, televisions, or other optional appliances not required to be made available under local housing codes. Still, as a landlord, you might consider resolving the damage anyway to avoid devaluing the property or hurting your relationship with your tenants or their neighbors.

How To Keep Track of Multiple Units or Properties

If you own and rent out more than one property, it can be challenging to keep track of all of them. It might be a good idea to set up a system to help make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that there will be help available to your tenants in an emergency. Hiring a property manager might be expensive, but it might pay for itself if it helps you avoid more costly damage down the road. As a landlord, you're ultimately responsible for mishaps. You may need to make some sacrifices to avoid pain down the road. If carrying an emergency phone with you at all times will do the job, then you should consider it. Checking your email and text messages frequently might be inconvenient, but it comes with the territory.

Tips About Finances Related to Repairs

Waiting too long to make a necessary repair can make a problem much bigger. The failure to budget accurately for maintenance and emergencies can lead to surprise costs. You can't just take money from your tenant's security deposit to make repairs in every situation. If the tenant isn't at fault for damage to the property, the responsibility to maintain the habitability of the units remains with you as the landlord.

Being a landlord can be expensive. But paying out of pocket for important repairs can save you money in the long run. The financial cost of repairs and legal penalties for an injured tenant can far exceed repair costs. The government could shut down an unlivable property, and it might take a long time before you're able to rent it out again. A little pain in your wallet today could help you avoid a lot of pain tomorrow.

Related Resources

If You Need Help With a Landlord-Tenant Issue, Call a Lawyer

Habitability problems can become time-consuming and costly. If you need help negotiating a solution, you might require legal services. If you're facing a habitability lawsuit for a rental property, contact a real estate lawyer in your area. They can give you legal advice to help you avoid expensive landlord breaches. An attorney can also help to bring you into compliance with court decisions relating to habitation.

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