Repairs and maintenance for a residential rental property are usually the responsibility of the landlord -- under federal law (the warranty of habitability), landlords must maintain a livable dwelling.
Most of the time, if something breaks in a rental property, the landlord needs to either fix it or pay someone to do the job. But what if the needed repair is because of something the tenant caused to happen? Can the landlord make the tenant pay?
When the landlord must pay
Landlords are responsible for providing a livable property for tenants. Before a tenant moves in, the rental unit must have the following:
- Plumbing that works: This includes having hot and cold running water, toilets that work, no water or gas leaks, and no plumbing issues in general.
- Heat: A rental unit needs to have a working heating system.
- No pests: The rental property needs to be free from pest infestation. There can be no infestations of mice or rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, or any other type of pest infestation.
- Safe electrical system: Outlets and wiring needs to be to code.
A note about appliances
Appliances that come with the rental -- such as the oven, dishwasher, and refrigerator -- are often part of the lease agreement; if those appliances break, the landlord needs to fix them. Any appliances not in the lease agreement, such as a washer/dryer, would be the tenant's responsibility to fix.
When the landlord doesn't need to pay
A landlord doesn't need to repair everything a tenant asks for. If the carpet is getting worn out or stained during a tenant's stay and the tenant requests new carpet or flooring, the landlord doesn't need to honor that request.
The same applies if the interior paint has faded or a cabinet door has warped, for example. Landlords might want to repaint the walls or replace the cabinet door, but those types of repair requests don't fall under the warranty of habitability. The unit would still be livable if those types of repairs aren't fixed.
It's also acceptable for landlords to include language in the rental agreement that makes tenants responsible for small repairs, such as ones that would cost $50 or less. This might include changing a light bulb or a refrigerator filter.
When the tenant needs to pay
If the tenant causes damage to the rental unit beyond what's considered normal wear and tear, the tenant needs to pay for that damage. The way this usually works is the landlord deducts the repair cost from the security deposit.
Some examples of repairs the tenant might be responsible for include the following:
- A gaping hole in the wall.
- Painting the wall an unapproved color.
- Water damage from potted plants.
- Burns in the carpet.
- Gouged wood floors.
- Doors ripped off hinges.
- Cracked bathroom tiles.
- Clogged sink drains from improper use.
- Broken refrigerator shelves.
If there's damage beyond normal wear and tear and the landlord deducts the cost of repair from the security deposit, the landlord needs to provide an itemized receipt of the completed work or an estimate to get the work done within the timeframe for the jurisdiction. Most states require a return of the security deposit or an explanation of why any money is being withheld within 30 days of moveout, but that varies by state.
Normal wear and tear
A landlord cannot charge a tenant for normal wear and tear. Nothing stays brand-new forever, and tenants are expected to live their lives and use the rental unit. Maintaining the rental property is part of an expense all landlords should budget for.
Some examples of normal wear and tear include the following:
- Smudges on the walls.
- Thinning carpet from walking on it.
- Scuffs on the wood floor.
- Sticking doors.
- Clogged pipes from aging.
- Loose bathroom tiles that need grout.
If the landlord tries to make the tenant pay for repairs
Some landlords try to charge tenants for repairs that are the landlord's responsibility. If a landlord does that, that landlord could be sued. If a landlord doesn't repair a habitability issue and the tenant pays for it, or if the landlord tries to charge a tenant for normal wear and tear, the tenant's recourse is to sue the landlord in small claims court.
Tenants have the right to sue the landlord for damages, which would be the cost the tenant paid to repair something that was the landlord's responsibility. Tenants can also sue for replacement costs of any damaged belongings of the tenant due to a repair not being done in a timely manner, such as if there were a water leak in the bedroom and the water damaged the tenant's bedroom furniture. Depending on the problem, the tenant could also possibly be compensated for pain and suffering due to a defective housing condition.
The Millionacres bottom line
Landlords are typically responsible for repairs that need to be done at their rental property. Tenants are generally responsible for routine maintenance of the property, such as taking out the trash, replacing batteries in smoke detectors, and changing light bulbs. When landlords and tenants understand what each party is and isn't responsible for and abide by those rules, the landlord-tenant relationship usually works out well.