The Legal Standard for Repairs: Warranty of Habitability
Landlords should try to make repairs in a timely manner, but catering to excessive or unwarranted demands by tenants can distract from more important duties. When deciding what repairs to make first, landlords should prioritize repairs that affect the habitability of the rental unit.
Repairs that Affect the Warranty of Habitability
Every time a landlord rents out a rental unit, they are implicitly promising that it is fit for human habitation. (That is, they have made a warranty of habitability.)
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 that 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 that affect the warranty of habitability include:
- Structural repairs, such as severe damage to the walls, ceiling, or floor
- Repairs to the electrical system
- Repairs to the plumbing system
- Extermination of severe pest infestations that were not caused by the tenant
Repairs that affect habitability should be made immediately. If they are unreasonably delayed, the tenant may have a right to withhold rent.
Repairs that Can Be Made Later
If a repair does not affect the warranty of habitability, a tenant 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, which will make it easier to find better tenants the next time you need to rent your property.
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