How Much Maintenance and Repair Is Required by Law?

Maintenance and repairs are items that you as a landlord are legally responsible to address. Below are some of the major issues that you will want to address immediately, as there can be legal consequences down the line.

  • Major repairs: As a landlord, in most legal jurisdictions, you are required to maintain housing that meets minimum habitability requirements. This usually includes heat, hot water, plumbing, electricity, and structurally safe housing. It can also include exterminating pests. Remember, safety includes not only the interior of the home but the exterior as well, such as an uneven deck with loose boards or an wobbly outdoor staircase that is falling apart. More examples of major repairs that require your immediate attention include a broken water heater, a broken furnace, and a broken front door lock. Also, remember to keep common areas safe and clean, and provide a method for tenants to remove their trash.

Each state and city has its own regulations for repairs, and may include requirements for specific weather or specific neighborhoods. These could include slippery sidewalks, waterproofing parts of homes in wet and rainy states, or providing good door locks and exterior lighting in high-crime neighborhoods. Other city regulations may include specific laws such as power lines, ventilation, and smoke detectors. If you're not sure where to find your local codes, go to the city and ask for their housing department. You can also ask for the health and fire department. Typically, if you want to renovate your house, you need to go to these people and apply for a permit.

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To look up your State law, we recommend the Library of Congress website

  • Minor repairs: As a landlord, it's critical that you address major maintenance issues, because some State laws allow tenants to withhold rent until the landlord addresses the problems. Minor repairs are another matter and need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. What is the qualification for minor repairs? A small fix might include a discolored latex paint (lead paint is a different matter; lead paint gone bad can be considered a major repair), a leaky faucet, a toilet that takes a long time to flush, a loose door handle, or a broken screen in a window. While these types of repairs may not be legally required for habitability, but they should still be addressed promptly. Savvy landlords will want to keep good tenants satisfied while simultaneously protecting their investment property. Staying on top of both major and minor repairs is a good way to do so.

Be aware, however, that you need to check your lease terms, and even your advertising and rental listings, to make sure you haven't committed to providing certain features to your tenants. For example, if your rental ad says hot tubs or dishwashers, it's your responsibility to fix them if they need fixing, even if they don't make the house uninhabitable. Similarly, if you have detailed specific minor repairs in a lease or another conversation with the tenant, you may be legally required to make the repairs.

  • Communication with your tenant: Most repairs should be done quickly. However, keep in mind that unless the repair is an emergency, such as a serious water leak or a fire, you must notify the tenant in advance. This advance notice is preferably 24 hours (although this varies by state), preferably in writing, with the tenant's written confirmation or a read receipt. Paperwork is also there to protect you—with it, your tenants are less likely to blame you for missing anything in the house because they were told beforehand that you would be entering the rental.

  • Potential consequences of failing to maintain habitability: If you as a landlord do not maintain habitable conditions in your rental property, a tenant make take drastic action. This could include breaking the lease and moving out, withholding rent or part of the rent, hiring a service provider to make repairs and deducting payments from future rent, or going to the city authorities to involve the local building inspector. If the inspector finds a violation, you will receive a subpoena and be required to solve the problem. Sometimes, the local government may require you to provide temporary accommodation for the renter.

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In the worst case, tenants can also sue you in the small claims court if they can prove that the delay in making repairs made them extremely ill. Therefore, it is best to process the repair request as soon as possible and communicate the repair time with the tenant regularly. Ideally, communicate in writing (e-mail or chat) so that you have the proper documentation to deal with the problem in a timely manner.